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Diet of Balaenophilus spp. (Copepoda: Harpacticoida): feeding on keratin at sea?

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Abstract

Evidence about the diet and the type of association, commensalistic or parasitic, of species of Balaenophilus is not conclusive. In this study, we addressed these questions based on patterns of microhabitat selection, SEM and immunohistochemistry analyses of gut contents of the two species in the genus, B. unisetus and B. umigamecolus. We also made histopathological descriptions of the sites where the latter species occurred. Heavy infections of B. unisetus were found on the baleen plates of 18 out of 20 fin whales, Balaenoptera physalus, captured off the NW coast of Spain. Gut contents were packed as food pellets that were composed mostly of baleen tissue, as indicated by both SEM and immunohistochemistry. Individuals of B. umigamecolus appeared in 43 out of 52 loggerhead sea turtles from the Western Mediterranean. In six turtles analysed in detail, copepods occurred mostly in the hinge region between limb scales and on the skin of the cloacal region; rarely under whitish skin lesions on the neck and hindlimbs. No food pellets could be found in 20 individuals examined, but two of them had pieces of tissue in the mouth that resembled turtle skin. The histopathologic analysis was also compatible with mild host reaction to the erosion of epidermis produced by B. umigamecolus. The occurrence of Balaenophilus spp. as ectoparasites of phylogenetically unrelated hosts which, however, provide similar keratin-rich habitats, might suggest that the exploitation of this food resource (an ecological novelty among crustaceans) is in the origin of these associations. This hypothesis is further supported by the record of another putative species of Balaenophilus on the skin of sirenians.

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Acknowledgments

We thank G. García, D. Ibarzábal, M. Montolio, Acuario Nacional de Cuba, and M. Ortiz, Universidad de La Habana, for kindly arranging access to specimens of Harpactichechus manatorum. Thanks are also due to G. Albiñana, E. Bautista, M. Del Dedo, T. García and A. Tempier for technical assistance. We are also indebted to the staff of the Electron Microscopy Section of the Central Service of Support to Experimental Investigation of the University of Valencia for his assistance. The support and help of members of the Marine Zoology Unit of the Cavanilles Institute of the University of Valencia, especially J. Tomás, is greatly appreciated. This work was supported by project REN2003–01758 of the Ministry of Science of Technology, Spain, and by the Service of Conservation of Biodiversity, Conselleria de Territori i Habitatge, Generalitat Valenciana, Spain. F.J.A. benefits from a “Ramón y Cajal” contract from the Ministry of Education and Science, Spain.

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Correspondence to F. J. Aznar.

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Communicated by S.A. Poulet, Roscoff.

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Badillo, F.J., Puig, L., Montero, F.E. et al. Diet of Balaenophilus spp. (Copepoda: Harpacticoida): feeding on keratin at sea?. Mar Biol 151, 751–758 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-006-0521-z

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