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Hooked on you: shape of attachment structures in cymothoid isopods reflects parasitic strategy

Baillie, C; Welicky, R; Hadfield, K; Smit, N; Mariani, S; Beck, RMD

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C Baillie

R Welicky

K Hadfield

N Smit

S Mariani

RMD Beck


Parasite attachment structures are critical traits that influence effective host exploitation and survival. Morphology of attachment structures can reinforce host specificity and niche specialisation, or even enable host switching. Therefore, it is important to understand the determinants of variation in attachment structures. Cymothoid isopods are striking ectoparasites of fishes that include the infamous ‘tongue-biters.’ They are known to parasitise hosts in one of four qualitatively distinct anatomical regions. Here, we quantify variation in cymothoid attachment structures — hook-like appendages called dactyli — and test whether differences in dactylus shape are correlated with parasite mode (where they attach), allometry, or both, using multivariate ordinary least squares regression. We also assess the influence of shared ancestry on shape using a molecular phylogeny to weight our models using phylogenetic generalised least squares regression.

We find clear differences in shape between externally-attaching and internally-attaching cymothoids but also between anterior and posterior dactyli across various species with the same attachment mode. Allometric effects are significant for anterior but not posterior dactyli. Mouth-attaching species show greater shape variability than gill- and mouth-attaching species. We find no evidence that there are clade-specific patterns of association between parasite mode and dactylus shape.

Parasite mode appears to be the main driver of attachment morphology. This likely reflects several components of parasite ecology including feeding and functional demands of attachment in different microhabitats. Geometric morphometric approaches to the quantification of shape variation of simple structures is an effective tool that provides new insights into the evolvability of parasite attachment.


Baillie, C., Welicky, R., Hadfield, K., Smit, N., Mariani, S., & Beck, R. (2019). Hooked on you: shape of attachment structures in cymothoid isopods reflects parasitic strategy. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 19, 207.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Oct 21, 2019
Publication Date 2019-12
Deposit Date Jun 9, 2023
Publicly Available Date Jun 9, 2023
Journal BMC Evolutionary Biology
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 19
Pages 207


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