Smart Mites

Parasitologists commonly observe species in which one sex is more heavily parasitized than the other. For example, territorial male impalas carry a much higher tick load than bachelor or female impalas (paper by Mooring and colleagues found here).  Territorial males spend less time grooming to remove ticks and instead spend their time watching for intruding males and wandering females.

Most of the explanations I’ve read for why one sex is more heavily burdened by parasites have focused on how host behavior, physiology and immune status influences their infection status. Few studies have examined if males or females have higher parasite loads because parasites are actively choosing one sex over another.

I was excited yesterday to come across this paper which examined whether or not parasitic mites are capable of preferentially infesting one sex. These researchers had previously observed that female bats from the genus Myotis are often infested with more mites than are males and so they decided to examine whether part of this pattern could be explained by the parasites “preferring” females.

Mouse-eared_BatsMites can not survive very long on their own and require a host for food and energy. It’s in the mite’s best interest to try to stay in areas of high bat density. This way they have plenty of other hosts when they reproduce and their offspring need to find a host of their own. It’s also a good idea to have other alternatives nearby in case the bat that the mite is currently living on falls ill and the mite needs to abandon ship.

If you’re like me, then when you imagine what bats you envision a cave wall with bats crammed in there nose to nose. The bats that roost in these large groups are females with their young. The males on the other hand, are loners. Instead of roosting with the group, they find a place to hunker down on their own. This means that, given a choice, mites should prefer to infest females who will surround themselves with other tasty bats over males encounter other bats far less frequently.

MyotisResearchers decided to test whether or not mites were capable of preferentially infecting females given a choice between both sexes. They placed a male and a female bat into an enclosed arena where their movements were limited and released a set number of mites into the enclosure. After keeping track of the mites’ choices, the researchers released the bats into an outdoor arena. Ten days later, the bats were recaptured and mite survival was quantified.

I know lots of people who don’t seem to know what’s good for them, but the mites seem to have it all figured out. The mites choose adult females significantly more often than they choose adult males AND their survival on female bats was much higher than on males.

The exact mechanism by which the mites differentiate between the sexes is unknown, but it’s likely that they’re using hormonal cues.

The more I learn about parasites the more amazed I am at how good they are at keeping themselves alive. This study showed that they’re capable of making good decisions when picking a host and I’ve discussed in a previous post how parasites are able to alter the behavior of hosts that they’ve successfully infected. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the decisions made by parasites are driving differences in parasite loads between the sexes in lots of other species as well.

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8 thoughts on “Smart Mites

  1. Did this study control for the different in mite density for the spots where males and females tend to hang out?

    It seems to me that females are going to be more likely to pick up more mites simply by virtue of being in a lot more contact with other mite infested females.

  2. Matt – the two bats were released into an outdoor arena and were never in contact with other bats.

    Kelly – This is pretty sweet. Thanks for the article!

  3. “If you’re like me, then when you imagine what bats you envision a cave wall with bats crammed in there nose to nose.”

    A little typo, today, eh? Perhaps you were thinking just a few words faster than your fingers could type, haha. Not a huge problem, I’m sure most readers will figure it out.

    P.S.: I wish today’s post were a bit longer, I love your posts on parasitic behaviour.

  4. Remarkable – It appears that intelligent and well thought out blog pieces about studiously researched, very specific fields of scientific study are the antidote to the internet in general, as there seems to be none of your average internet commentators. You, ma’am, have discovered the most important thing in the history of the internet – the Stupidity Shield. Now if you can only find a way to translate this discovery into common usage, you might forever change the internet as we know it! Your efforts on the behalf of sanity and intelligence are considerable. We thank you.

    P.S. Interesting article – I wonder how “smart” E. Coli are, and how much influence they have had on human development. For that matter, how about everything else we house in our gut?

  5. Um… I don’t mean to be a dick, ma’am, but I like your blog very much, and yet, you’ve stopped posting.

    It’s been a month. Well, 30 days, but that’s close enough.

    Your blog is one of the few out there that isn’t complete emotional nonsense.

    So please, please update more. I’m sure you’re very busy, but this is fascinating stuff.

  6. Please come back! We miss you (and by we I mean me, but I’m pretty sure there are others who feel the same way). To copy Jack – please update! Your posts are interesting and intelligent, which is a pretty rare find.

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