Learning more about vampire fish: first report of candiru attached to an Amazonian thorny catfish

For the first time, scientists report a vampire fish attached to the body of an Amazonian thorny catfish. Very unusually, the candirus were attached close to the lateral bone plates, rather than the gills, where they are normally found. Since the hosts were not badly harmed, and the candirus apparently derived no food benefit, scientists believe this association is commensalistic rather than parasitic. The research is published in the open-access journal Acta Ichthyologica et Piscatoria.

Guest blog post by Chiara C. F. Lubich, André R. Martins, Carlos E. C. Freitas, Lawrence E. Hurd and Flávia K. Siqueira-Souza

The Amazon River Basin is home to about 15% of all freshwater fish species known to science, and an estimated 40% yet to be named. These include some of the most bizarre fishes: the vampire fishes, locally known as candiru, members of the catfish subfamily Vandelliinae.). They survive by attaching themselves to the bodies of other fish and sucking on their blood, hence their common name. Yet, it was only recently that we found out that one candiru species, belonging to the genus Paracanthopoma, seems to be making use of its host in quite a different way.

During a sampling study of freshwater fish fauna in a lake of the Demeni River Basin, a left bank tributary of the Negro River, we found candirus attached to the surface of the body of an Amazonian species of a thorny catfish. By the end of the survey, we had observed a total of twenty candirus attached to the outside of the bodies of nine larger Doras phlyzakion, one or two per host. Very unusually, the candirus were attached close to the lateral bone plates, rather than the gills, where these fish are normally found.

Location of the study: Demeni River, left bank tributary of Negro River, Amazonas State, Brazil.

As a result of these observations, we recently published the first record of a candiru attached to the body surface of an Amazonian thorny catfish in an article in the open-access scholarly journal Acta Ichthyologica et Piscatoria.

Vampire fish have long and robust snouts, with strong dentary teeth that help them stay attached to the epidermis of their host and feed on its blood. However, when we performed a macroscopic analysis of the stomach contents of the preserved Paracanthopoma specimens, we were surprised to find no coagulated blood, nor flesh, skin or mucus. This might indicate an interaction between parasite and host that is more benign than usually attributed to vampire fish. 

Doras phlyzakion with vampire fish (Paracanthopoma sp.)  fixed into its epidermis close to the bony plates of the lateral line. Arrows: areas with reddish wounds.

We believe the association between candiru and host in this case might be commensalistic (where one organism benefits from another without harming it), rather than parasitic, because the hosts were not badly harmed, and the candiru apparently derived no food benefit. 

But what else would they seek on the back of Amazonian thorny catfish? One explanation could be that, since candirus are tiny and nearly transparent, they might be avoiding getting noticed by visual predators by riding on larger fish. Another hypothesis is that they could be using their big cousins to transport them over longer distances that they wouldn’t be able to cover themselves, eventually making it to safety or new food sources.

Research article:

Lubich CCF, Martins AR, Freitas CEC, Hurd LE, Siqueira-Souza FK (2021) A candiru, Paracanthopoma sp. (Siluriformes: Trichomycteridae), associated with a thorny catfish, Doras phlyzakion (Siluriformes: Doradidae), in a tributary of the middle Rio Negro, Brazilian Amazon. Acta Ichthyologica et Piscatoria 51(3): 241-244. https://doi.org/10.3897/aiep.51.e64324

How did the guppy cross the ocean: An unexpected fish appears on a volcanic archipelago

While people tend to describe tropical oceanic islands as ‘paradises on Earth’ and associate them with calm beaches, transparent warm waters and marvellous landscapes, archipelagos are often the product of a fierce natural force – volcanoes which erupt at the bottom of the sea.

Because of their origin, these islands have never been connected to the mainland, thereby it is extremely difficult for species to cross the ocean and populate them.DSCN1337

One such species – the South American guppy (Poecilia vivipara) – is a small freshwater fish which looks nowhere equipped to cross the distance between the mainland and the Fernando de Noronha oceanic archipelago in Northeast Brazil.

Nevertheless, the research team of PhD student Waldir M. Berbel-Filho and his professor Dr. Sergio Lima from Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte recorded the species from a local mangrove on the island. The question that immediately sprang to the minds of the scientists was: ‘Where did the guppies come from and how did they get to Fernando de Noronha?’

To answer these questions, the scientists sequenced a gene of the guppies’ DNA to analyze potential signatures of the island colonization left in the fish DNA. As a result, they concluded that the isolated population was in fact closely related to the fish inhabiting the closest continental drainages.

However, this evidence was not enough to explain how the species turned up on the island in the first place. Was it natural colonization, or rather human introduction?

Poecilia vivipara Sergipe-2

The most likely scenario, according to the team, leads back to about 60 years ago when the American military had their WWII bases positioned at both Fernando de Noronha and Natal – the closest continental city. Indeed, the soldiers suggested to bring guppies to the island in an attempt to control mosquito population (in this region, guppies are commonly placed in water reservoirs to eat mosquito larvae).

On the other hand, natural dispersion cannot be completely excluded. The biologists remind that, apart for their exuberant colours and shapes, the guppies are well known for their capacity to resist to a wide range of environmental conditions. It could be that a set of circumstances occurring together, such as a favourable sea current, physiological adaptation and a bit of luck, might have brought the guppies to the archipelago.

Regardless of their means of transportation,” argue the authors, “this guppy population represents a valuable lesson on how small populations manage to colonize and thrive in isolated environments.

Despite being visited by thousands of people every year, some of the most intriguing secrets of tropical islands may still be hidden in the DNA of their inhabitants,” they conclude. “These ‘paradises on Earth’ are capable of simultaneously filling our hearts with beauty and our minds – with knowledge.”



Original source:

Berbel-Filho WM, Barros-Neto LF, Dias RM, Mendes LF, Figueiredo CAA, Torres RA, Lima SMQ (2018) Poecilia vivipara Bloch & Schneider, 1801 (Cyprinodontiformes, Poeciliidae), a guppy in an oceanic archipelago: from where did it come? ZooKeys 746: 91-104. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.746.20960