ABSTRACT

Organisms with a parasitic lifestyle comprise a high proportion of biodiversity in aquatic and terrestrial environments. However, there is considerable variation in the ways in which they acquire nutrients. Hematophagy is a common consumption strategy utilized by some terrestrial, aquatic, and marine organisms whereby the parasite removes and digests blood from a host. Gnathiid isopods are marine hematophagous parasites that live in benthic substrates from the intertidal to the abyss. Although ecologically similar to ticks and mosquitoes, they feed only during each of 3 juvenile stages and adults do not feed. They have long been considered as generalist fish parasites and to date, there have been no reports of their successfully feeding on invertebrates. Based on observations of gnathiids attached to soft-bodied invertebrates collected from light traps, we conducted a laboratory experiment in which we collected and individually housed various common Caribbean invertebrates and placed them in containers with gnathiids to see if the gnathiids would feed on them. All fed gnathiids were subsequently removed from containers and given the opportunity to metamorphose to the next developmental stage. In total, 10 out of the 260 gnathiids that were presented with 1 of 4 species of potential invertebrate hosts had fed by the next morning. Specifically, 9 of a possible 120 gnathiids fed on lettuce sea slugs (Elysia crispata), and 1 of a possible 20 fed on a bearded fireworm (Hermodice carunculata). Eight of these 10 fed gnathiids metamorphosed to the next stage (5 to adult male, 2 to adult female, and 1 to third-stage juvenile). Even though feeding rates on invertebrates were considerably lower than observed for laboratory studies on fishes, this study provides the first documented case of gnathiids' feeding on and metamorphosing from invertebrate meals. These findings suggest that when fish hosts are not readily available, gnathiids could switch to soft-bodied invertebrates. They further provide insights into the evolution of feeding on fluids from live hosts in members of this family.

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