The early life history and reproductive biology of Cymothoa excisa, a marine isopod parasitizing Atlantic croaker, (Micropogonias undulatus), along the Texas coast
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Parasite population dynamics and the evolution of life history characteristics are strongly correlated with the processes of host infection, survival within a host and reproduction, with each process posing a challenge to the parasitic lifestyle. Macroparasites living in marine environments have evolved extreme changes in physiology, morphology and life history traits to overcome these challenges. This study focused on the infective and reproductive stage of the parasitic isopod, Cymothoa excisa, a common parasite on Atlantic croaker, (Micropogonias undulatus), along the Texas coast. A two year survey identified infection rates and the relationship between fish density and size and parasite load, size and fecundity. Isopod morphology was quantified for each life stage, identifying shape transitions through ontogeny and sex change. Sex change in C. excisa was found to be driven by the absence of conspecific parasites within a host, where sex change only occurred in the first individual to arrive. To understand the infective stage of C. excisa parasite energetics and host detection mechanisms were tested. Parasites with free-living life stages have a narrow window to infect a host and have evolved a number of mechanisms to detect and locate a host. I used a series of energetic experiments to determine an infection window for free-swimming larvae (mancae) and behavioral response experiments testing both visual and chemical cues associated with host detection. Mancae were found to have a narrow infection window, where mancae began searching for a host as soon as they are born, but quickly switch to an ambush strategy to conserve energy. Mancae were also found to be responsive to both visual and chemical cues from its common fish host, as well as a non-host fish, indicating that chemical cues are used in host detection, but chemical specificity is not a mechanism that C. excisa uses to find its common host. The results from this study have implications to parasitic species and their hosts, as well as to other areas of study, including population and ecosystem dynamics.