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Parasite Turns Irish Shrimp into Voracious Cannibals

First Posted: Mar 19, 2015 06:39 AM EDT

It turns out that parasites can play an important role in driving cannibalism. Scientists have found that parasites can cause ramp up cannibalism among freshwater shrimp in Northern Ireland.

Consumption of juveniles by adults is a relatively normal occurrence in the shrimp, Gammarus duebeni celticus. However, researchers noticed that this cannibalism increased when the shrimp were infected by a certain parasite.

"The parasite is quite debilitating," said Alison Dunn, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It takes over huge areas of the muscle, so instead of a nice transparent shrimp you get quite a chalky appearance because of muscles packed with the parasite. Interestingly, our group has also found previously that infected shrimp may be able to catch and eat less prey of other animal species. Perhaps cannibalism of smaller shrimp is the only way these sick animals can survive."

That's not all the researchers found, either. It turns out that uninfected adult shrimp are less likely to cannibalize infected juvenile shrimp than uninfected juveniles.

"The parasite is passed to its new host either when it dies and is eaten by another shrimp, or when one shrimp cannibalizes another," said Dunn. "But we observed that uninfected shrimp avoid parasitized food and that is good for the shrimp as it means that they can obtain food through cannibalism but still avoid parasitic infection. Infected shrimp don't avoid infected juveniles. They consume infected and uninfected juveniles. This may be because they are more hungry or because they are already infected so there is no incentive to avoid eating infected juveniles."

The findings reveal a bit more about this parasite and show its influence on biological systems.

The findings are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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