Alaria mesocercariae in the tails of red-sided garter snakes: evidence for parasite-mediated caudectomy
Trematodes of the genus Alaria develop into an arrested stage, known as mesocercariae, within their amphibian second intermediate host. The mesocercariae are frequently transmitted to a non-obligate paratenic host before reaching a definitive host where further development and reproduction can occur. Snakes are common paratenic hosts for Alaria spp. with the mesocercariae often aggregating in the host’s tail. In the current study, we used morphological examination and molecular analyses based on partial sequences of nuclear large ribosomal subunit gene and mitochondrial cytochrome C oxidase subunit 1 gene to identify larvae in the tails of red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) as mesocercariae of Alaria marcianae, Alaria mustelae, and Alaria sp. as well as metacercariae of Diplostomidae sp. of unknown generic affiliation. We assessed infection prevalence, absolute and relative intensity, and associated pathological changes in these snakes. Infection prevalence was 100 % for both male and female snakes. Infection intensity ranged from 11 to more than 2000 mesocercariae per snake tail but did not differ between the sexes. Gross pathological changes included tail swelling while histopathological changes included mild inflammation and the presence of mucus-filled pseudocysts surrounding mesocercariae, as well as the compression and degeneration of muscle fibers. Our results indicate that mesocercariae can lead to extensive muscle damage and loss in both sexes which likely increases the fragility of the tail making it more prone to breakage. As tail loss in garter snakes can affect both survival and reproduction, infection by Alaria mesocercariae clearly has serious fitness implications for these snakes.