In evolutionary ecology, a parasitoid is an organism that lives in close association with its host at the host’s expense, eventually resulting in the death of the host. Parasitoidism is one of six major evolutionary strategies within parasitism, distinguished by the fatal prognosis for the host, which makes the strategy close to predation.
Among parasitoids, strategies range from living inside the host (endoparasitism), allowing it to continue growing before emerging as an adult, to paralysing the host and living outside it (ectoparasitism). Hosts can include other parasitoids, resulting in hyperparasitism; in the case of oak galls, up to five levels of parasitism are possible. Some parasitoids influence their host’s behaviour in ways that favour the propagation of the parasitoid.
Parasitoids are found in a variety of taxa across the insect order of endopterygote, whose complete metamorphosis may have pre-adapted them for a split lifestyle, with parasitoid larvae and freeliving adults. Most are in the Hymenoptera, where the ichneumons and many other parasitoid wasps are highly specialised for a parasitoidal way of life. Other parasitoids are in the Diptera, Coleoptera and other orders of endopterygote insects. Some of these, usually but not only wasps, are used in biological pest control.
The biology of parasitoidism has inspired science fiction authors and scriptwriters to create numerous parasitoidal aliens that kill their human hosts, such as the alien species in Ridley Scott‘s 1979 film Alien.
Parasitoid Strategies Koinobiont Compared to Idiobiont, explaining why Ectoparasites are usually Idiobiont, Endoparasites Koinobiont.
Parasitoids can be classified as either endo- or ectoparasitoids with idiobiont or koinobiont developmental strategies. Endoparasitoids live within their host’s body, while ectoparasitoids feed on the host from outside. Idiobiont parasitoids prevent further development of the host after initially immobilizing it, whereas koinobiont parasitoids allow the host to continue its development while feeding upon it. Most ectoparasitoids are idiobiont, as the host could damage or dislodge the external parasitoid if allowed to move and moult. Most endoparasitoids are koinobionts, giving them the advantage of a host that continues to grow larger and avoid predators.
Primary parasitoids have the simplest parasitic relationship, involving two organisms, the host and the parasitoid. Hyperparasitoids are parasitoids of parasitoids; secondary parasitoids have a primary parasitoid as their host, so there are three organisms involved. Hyperparasitoids are either facultative (can be a primary parasitoid or a hyperparasitoid depending on the situation) or obligate (always develop as a hyperparasitoid). Levels of parasitoids beyond secondary also occur, especially among facultative parasitoids. In oak gall systems, there can be up to five levels of parasitism. Cases in which two or more species of parasitoids simultaneously attack the same host without parasitizing each other are called multi- or multiple parasitism. In many cases, multiple parasitism still leads to the death of one or more of the parasitoids involved. If multiple parasitoids of the same species coexist in a single host, it is called superparasitism. Gregarious species lay multiple eggs or polyembryonic eggs which lead to multiple larvae in a single host. The end result of gregarious superparasitism can be a single surviving parasitoid individual or multiple surviving individuals, depending on the species. If superparasitism occurs accidentally in normally solitary species the larvae often fight among themselves until only one is left.
Influencing host behaviour
In another strategy, some parasitoids influence the host’s behaviour in ways that favour the propagation of the parasitoid, often at the cost of the host’s life. A spectacular example is the lancet liver fluke, which causes host ants to die clinging to grass stalks, where grazers or birds may be expected to eat them and complete the parasitoidal fluke’s life cycle in its definitive host. Similarly, as strepsipteran parasitoids of ants mature, they cause the hosts to climb high on grass stalks, positions that are risky, but favour the emergence of the strepsipterans.
Among the parasitic wasps, Glyptapanteles modifies the behaviour of its host caterpillar to defend the pupae of the wasps after they emerge from the caterpillar’s body.
The phorid fly Apocephalus borealis oviposits into the abdomen of its hosts, including honey bees, causing them to abandon their nest, flying from it at night and soon dying, allowing the next generation of flies to emerge outside the hive.
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