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Entries in New York (7)


Here, have a sunset

Westmeadow Beach NY, 2006


One of the bizarrest parasitic relationships you will ever see

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgMy good colleague Janine Caira wrote a paper way back in 1997 about one of the strangest parasites ever recorded in an animal.  This paper has stuck with me ever since, I think because I saw the original photos when I visited the lab of one of the other co-authors George Benz, when he was with Tennessee Aquarium (he's now at Middle Tennessee State U.).  So, I thought I'd revive it for you guys; the story goes like this:

Janine and her co-author Nancy Kohler had received a report from a longliner of a really big foul-hooked shortfin mako caught near Montauk, NY.  (a shortfin is shown at right, from, this one with plenty of parasitic copepods on the dorsal fin - it sucks to be a shark sometimes).  Now, Janine is the queen of tapeworm taxonomy in sharks and rays - believe it or not, there's lots of them - and had visited Montauk before to collect parasites during catch-and-kill shark tournaments held there.  To make the most of the unfortunate death of this mako, they raced across the sound from Connecticut to collect parasites from the beast.  It was a huge animal, nearly 900lbs, and during necropsy, as they say in the paper, they "were astonished to find two anguilliform fish in the lumen of the heart".  Thats right, eels; this shark had two eels living in the chambers of the heart!  These particular eels, called pugnose eels or Simonchelys parasitica, have been recorded before burrowing into the flesh of halibut and other large North Atlantic fishes (hence their species name), but never completely internal and certainly not in the lumen of the heart, so this was a truly remarkable find. 

Janine and her colleagues were unable to determine the path of entry, but they showed good evidence that the eels were alive in the heart prior to the shark being killed and put in the fridge, because their guts were full of blood and there were pathologic changes to the heart.  Their conclusion?  That this was a facultatively parasitic relationship.  In other words, the eels didn't need to be living in the sharks heart (that would be obligate parasitism), rather they took advantage of an opportunity to get a meal.  They proposed that the eels probably attacked the shark after it had been hooked and was dangling, distressed, from the longline.  They had some evidence that the shark was probably resting on the bottom, which may have made it easier for the eels to find.  The pugnoses somehow gained entry (hypothesised to be through the gills) and made their way to the heart, where they dined on the beasts blood up until it died.  Maybe they would have burrowed out again after the animal expired, maybe they would have suffocated (remember - the eels had be swimming in and breathing the sharks blood once they were inside, how bizarre is that?).  We'll never know because the carcass went in the fridge, which ended things for the eels, but also led to this amazing discovery.

The horrifying part is that the shark was almost certainly alive as the eels made their way into its flesh and began to consume its life blood from the inside.  It would have been a long, slow and nasty way to go out.  It just goes to show that even when you are at the top of the food chain, you're never really at the top of the food chain...

Caira, J., Benz, G., Borucinska, J., & Kohler, N. (1997). Pugnose eels, Simenchelys parasiticus (Synaphobranchidae) from the heart of a shortfin mako, Isurus oxyrinchus (Lamnidae) Environmental Biology of Fishes, 49 (1), 139-144 DOI: 10.1023/A:1007398609346


No rest for the wicked

Returned from the Eastern Fish Health Workshop in the DC area yesterday, after our flight got canceled on Friday.  It was a fantastic meeting, for all the reasons I cited in my previous post. 

I've got one day at work today and then off to Mexico for field research with Mexican government colleagues this week (more about that later), but not for long, because teaching duties in NY on Friday and Saturday call.  While I am in NY, I'll be giving a public lecture about whale sharks at Stony Brook Southampton on the 4th at 1930hrs.  Its part of the SoMAS Spring lecture series; I'd love to see you there!


The Type Room

This is one of the rooms at AMNH where type series are kept, in this case for fish. A type series is that original set of specimens lodged at a museum when a new species is first described. These are therefore very valuable specimens, in a sense irreplaceable!  Its hard not to feel the gravitas of the mission of museums when faced with something as fundamental as a type series.  We also had a chance to see real coelacanths (they're bigger than I thought!), which was very exciting.


AMNH the reprise

It was a long but fantastic day at the Museum yesterday.  After Bento boxes with the grad studets, I met with folks from their comparative genomics and conservation genetics group including George Amato and Rob deSalle.  Then out for refreshments with the leech lab folks and their intrepid leader and old colleague of mine Mark Siddall. We gasbagged about everything from progressive metal to the latest leech they described, Tyranobdella rex, from up the nose of an unfortunate Peruvian child. What an awesome name. You can read more about it on Mark's blog Bdella Nea, linked from my blog roll somewhere hereabouts.
I didn't get to do everything on the agenda yesterday, so its back to the museum today to meet with people from Ichthyology and take a look at the fish type collection (drool). I might just snag some bit-o-critter pics from among the jars...


Bailer shells

Only at AMNH do they use bailer shells as chip bowls for doritos and salsa...
(don't worry, its not an accessioned specimen)


Field locations you have loved

In this thread I want to hear about field locations YOU have loved, and WHY.  Here's a couple of mine to get the ball rolling:

Kedron Brook, Brisbane, Australia.  A choked little stretch of suburban creek on the north east side of Brisbane Australia was a key field location for my PhD research, which was all about introduced (exotic) species and their parasites in rivers and streams in Australia.  At one point just above the tidal influence - stylishly named KB216 for its map reference - this creek is basically completely exotic: plants, invertebrates, fish, the whole shebang.  There aren't many parasites there, but those that were present were introduced hitchhikers.  Not sexy, but a veritable Shangri-La for a student on the hunt for ferals...
Heron Island, Queensland, Australia.  Where I met and fell in love with marine biology.  A patch of sand and guano-reeking Pisonia forest 800m long, on a reef 10 times that size, crawling with noddies, shearwaters, turtles, grad students and squinting daytrippers or more wealthy sunburned resort guests.  Too many firsts for me there to even list (but no, not that one - get your mind out of the gutter!).  Absolute heaven, hands-down.  How do I get back?

Throgs Neck, NY, USA.  You generally wouldn't think of the junction of Queens and the Bronx as a biologically interesting in any way (except maybe on the subway), but actually the western part of Long Island Sound was the epicenter of a lobster holocaust that started in (well, before, if you ask me) 1999.  When we were out on the RV Seawolf, the Throgs Neck bridge marked your entry into the East River and the start of one of the most unique and strangely beautiful urban research cruises around, right down the East side of Manhattan, past the Statue of Liberty and out into the Lower NY bays.  We would pass through on our way to do winter flounder spawning surveys off the beach at Coney Island (its that or go around Montauk).  Proof that not all interesting biology takes place in Peruvian rainforests...

In the comments, tell us about a field location YOU have loved and why.  Post links if you can find them.