Noxious newts and their natural enemies: Experimental effects of tetrodotoxin exposure on trematode parasites and aquatic macroinvertebrates

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The dermal glands of many amphibian species secrete toxins or other noxious substances as a defense strategy against natural enemies. Newts in particular possess the potent neurotoxin tetrodotoxin (TTX), for which the highest concentrations are found in species within the genus Taricha. Adult Taricha are hypothesized to use TTX as a chemical defense against vertebrate predators such as garter snakes (Thamnophis spp.). However, less is known about how TTX functions to defend aquatic-developing newt larvae against natural enemies, including trematode parasites and aquatic macroinvertebrates. Here we experimentally investigated the effects of exogenous TTX exposure on survivorship of the infectious stages (cercariae) of five species of trematode parasites that infect larval amphibians. Specifically, we used dose-response curves to test the sensitivity of trematode cercariae to progressively increasing concentrations of TTX (0.0 [control], 0.63, 3.13, 6.26, 31.32, and 62.64 nmol L−1) and how this differed among parasite species. We further compared these results to the effects of TTX exposure (0 and 1000 nmolL−1) over 24 h on seven macroinvertebrate taxa commonly found in aquatic habitats with newt larvae. TTX significantly reduced the survivorship of trematode cercariae for all species, but the magnitude of such effects varied among species. Ribeiroia ondatrae – which causes mortality and limb malformations in amphibians – was the least sensitive to TTX, whereas the kidney-encysting Echinostoma trivolvis was the most sensitive. Among the macroinvertebrate taxa, only mayflies (Ephemeroptera) showed a significant increase in mortality following exogenous TTX exposure, despite the use of a concentration 16x higher than the maximum used for trematodes. Our results suggest that maternal investment of TTX into larval newts may provide protection against certain trematode infections and highlight the importance of future work assessing the effects of newt toxicity on both parasite infection success and the palatability of larval newts to invertebrate predators.

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