The aquatic oligochaete Tubifex tubifex is an obligate host of Myxobolus cerebralis, the causative agent of salmonid whirling disease. Tubifex tubifex can become infected by ingesting myxospores of M. cerebralis that have been released into sediments upon death and decomposition of infected salmonids. Infected worms release triactinomyxons into the water column that then infect salmonids. How the dose of myxospores ingested by T. tubifex influences parasite proliferation and the worm host are not well understood. Using replicated laboratory experiments, we examined how differing doses of myxospores (50, 500, 1,000 per worm) influenced triactinomyxon production and biomass, abundance, and individual weight of 2 geographically distinct populations of T. tubifex. Worm populations produced differing numbers of triactinomyxons, but, within a population, the production did not differ among myxospore doses. At the lowest myxospore dose, 1 worm population produced 45 times more triactinomyxons than myxospores received, whereas the other produced only 6 times more triactinomyxons than myxospores. Moreover, total T. tubifex biomass, abundance, and individual weight were lower among worms receiving myxospores than in myxospore-free controls. Thus, T. tubifex populations differ in ability to support the replication of M. cerebralis, and infection has measurable consequences on fitness of the worm host. These results suggest that variability in whirling disease severity observed in wild salmonid populations may partially be attributed to differences in T. tubifex populations.
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