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Sex change and morphological transitions in a marine ectoparasite


  • Colt Cook,

    1. Marine Science Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, Port Aransas, TX, USA
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  • Pablo Munguia

    Corresponding author
    1. Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA, Australia
    • Correspondence

      Pablo Munguia, Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.


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The fitness of parasitic organisms is strongly driven by their ability to infect potential hosts. Although transmission to a host organism is a key component to the parasitic lifestyle, surviving and reproducing within a host poses additional challenges. Cymothoa excisa is a parasitic isopod that infects Atlantic croaker, Micropogonias undulatus, along the Texas coast and has evolved mechanisms to successfully survive and reproduce within its host. Cymothoa excisa is known to exhibit sex-change strategies but limited information exists on morphological changes, reproductive output and the timing at which sex change becomes optimal. This study collected Atlantic croaker during a 22-month survey period and identified parasite prevalence and intensity in the host fish population. Infection rates were constant throughout the year at 19.88% and intensity increased through the season up to a maximum of four parasites. Following collection, isopod morphological parameters were quantified for each life stage (including female, transitional, male and juvenile), identifying shape and size transitions through ontogeny and sex change. Transitional C. excisa isopods only occurred when only one isopod was present in a fish, suggesting that isopods change sex from male to female if they are the first to recruit to an uninfected host. As isopods transition to females they have a large increase in size, legs, and pleotelson (which influence fecundity and anchoring ability), whereas the gonopod, eyes and uropod show a reduction (which are no longer needed for swimming and finding hosts). Data suggest that C. excisa sex change is related to the timing of infection and brood size increases with female size and host size. Therefore, it would be advantageous to be the first isopod to infect a host, as it could change into a female and increase reproductive potential. We discuss hypotheses that could explain the mating behavior of parasitic isopods.