The lined sea anemone Edwardsiella lineata has evolved a derived parasitic life history that includes a novel body plan adapted for life inside its ctenophore hosts. Reputedly its sole host is the sea walnut, Mnemiopsis leidyi, a voracious planktivore and a seasonally abundant member of many pelagic ecosystems. However, we have observed substantially higher E. lineata prevalence in a second ctenophore species, the ctenophore predator Beroë ovata. The interplay among these 3 species has important conservation consequences as M. leidyi introductions are thought to be responsible for the severe depletion of numerous commercial fisheries in the Mediterranean basin, and both E. lineata and B. ovata have been proposed as biological controls for invasive M. leidyi. Over a 3-yr period (2004–2006), we collected 8,253 ctenophores from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, including M. leidyi, B. ovata, and a third ctenophore, Pleurobrachia pileus, and we recorded E. lineata infection frequencies, parasite load, and parasite location. We also conducted laboratory experiments to determine the likely mechanisms for parasite introduction and the effect of each host on parasite development. We observed peak E. lineata infection frequencies of 0% in P. pileus, 59% in M. leidyi, and 100% in B. ovata, suggesting that B. ovata could be an important natural host for E. lineata. However, in laboratory experiments, E. lineata larvae proved far more successful at infecting M. leidyi than B. ovata, and E. lineata parasites excised from M. leidyi exhibited greater developmental competence than parasites excised from B. ovata. Although we show that E. lineata is efficiently transferred from M. leidyi to B. ovata when the latter preys upon the former, we conclude that E. lineata larvae are not well adapted for parasitizing the latter species and that the E. lineata parasite is not well adapted for feeding in B. ovata; these developmental and ecological factors underlie the host specificity of this recently evolved parasite.
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