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Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

F WORMS IN FISH
ish parasites are rarely one and fish that host a
noticed by most of us, rich community of
at least until a big one parasites indicate an
ends up on someone’s intact food web. This is
grouper sandwich. Their Unsightly But Safe because the complex life
habits are often secretive cycles of many parasites
and most live their lives concealed from view; depend on different types of hosts (e.g. snail à fish à
nevertheless, if you know how and where to look, you bird) at different developmental stages (e.g. egg, larva,
can find them infecting almost any wild fish. The adult). Some types of parasites in particular life stages
world’s oceans, estuaries, lakes, and rivers, are teeming are completely dependent on a single host species, and
with worms, crustaceans, and other creatures that if that host is not present in an area, then the parasite
naturally live on or in fish hosts. Fortunately, few can won’t be there either. But not all are so particular, and
harm humans. these may be best able to survive and spread in an
unstable environment. A fish found to be infected by
many individual parasites of only one or a few types,
Public Health Precautions can indicate a stressed ecosystem.
Typically, anglers, seafood distributors, and restaurant Adult worms rarely live in the muscle of the fish
staff remove parasites from fish muscle before it is we eat. For many internal parasites, the intestine serves
cooked, but this is more about appearance than food as an excellent micro-habitat for adults because it
safety. Most fish parasites cannot survive in the human provides them open space, plenty of nutrition, and an
digestive tract, and all of the few exceptions are easy way to transport their eggs into the outside world
rendered harmless by adequate cooking or freezing. along with the host’s waste. The parasites we
No match for the grill, they are killed when seafood is sometimes see in fish muscle are typically encysted
heated to an internal temperature of 145°F (62.8°C). larvae waiting to move up the food chain to the predator
that will be their final host. In Florida, such larvae are
commonly seen in spotted seatrout, red grouper,
amberjack, and many other sport fish.
You can find information about safely
selecting, handling, cooking, and freezing
seafood at the website of the US Food and
Types of Parasites
Drug Administration (www.fda.gov). Tapeworms
As implied by the name, adult tapeworms (cestodes)
have ribbon-like bodies resembling a tailor’s measuring
Overview of Marine Fish Parasites tape. These are mostly made up of a long chain of
By definition, a parasite lives on or in another organism identical segment-like sections called proglottids. One
that is harmed in some way; however, while fish structure that is unique to each tapeworm species and
parasites are abundant, they rarely cause serious different from all the other sections is the scolex.
damage to wild hosts and usually act as relatively While it may be tempting to think of the scolex as a
harmless symbionts. In fact, a healthy ecosystem “head,” its only function is attachment. Tapeworms
supports greater parasite diversity than a degraded lack brains, eyes, and mouths and they absorb
nutrients through their body walls. Located at the front Flukes
end of the worm, the scolex can have suckers and
The flukes (trematodes) are a diverse group of
hooks to aid in clinging to host tissue. Adults are
flatworms that includes both internal and external
usually unseen because they live inside the intestines
parasites. Although the externally attaching flukes
of their final host, which in the marine environment,
(monogeneans or monogenoids) are problematic in
is usually a species of shark or ray.
aquaculture and aquariums and sometimes cause
The sight of larval tapeworms in fish fillets may be
fish mortalities, they tend to be difficult to see and
the most common reason people seek information
do not occur in fish muscle or infect humans.Dige-
about fish parasites and human health. Unlike the
neans, in contrast, are internal parasites, a few spe-
adults, larvae can be found in their hosts’ muscle (Fig.
cies of which can cause serious human disease; how-
1) and may occasionally make their way onto the
ever, digeneans that cause human illness are
dinner plate. For instance, red grouper usually host
typically parasites of terrestrial mammals and utilize
tapeworm larvae in their muscle. These are seen as
freshwater fish to complete their life cycles. There-
white blobs, or when attacked by the host’s cell
fore, the uncooked flesh of freshwater fish carrying
defense system, may be surrounded by a visibly
digenean larval stages is far riskier to human con-
obvious dark brown or black crust. An excellent
sumers than that of saltwater species.
example of a species from Florida waters is a tapeworm
Digeneans are flat and usually have compact
called Poecilancistrium caryophyllum. It parasitizes bull
bodies relative to tapeworms. Two sucker disks, one
sharks as an adult, but its larvae infect spotted seatrout
surrounding the mouth (anterior) region and one in
muscle after these game fish consume a smaller
the middle of the body, are unique traits of the group.
infected host, usually a copepod (a type of small
The flatworms use these suckers to cling to surfaces
crustacean) carrying the parasite egg. The infective
and actively consume their food, which may include
larvae in trout muscle are much smaller than might
tissue or the intestinal contents of their hosts.
be assumed at first sight. This is because the parasite
Digeneans have complex life cycles. Generally, eggs
surrounds itself with a long, easily seen, whitish sack,
are released by adults living in the intestine and voided
which resembles a noodle and has earned it the
into the water along with waste from the final fish host.
common name, spaghetti worm. The spotted seatrout,
Once in the outside environment they transform into
a favorite food of bull sharks, is the worm’s last stop
a swimming phase and infect their first host, usually
before its life cycle is complete.
a snail or other mollusk. In the snail, they multiply
asexually and eventually kill it by bursting through its
body wall. Once free, the larvae swim aggressively in
search of a new acceptable host (e.g. fish). If they find
one, they attach, and then bore inside where they
encyst in the tissues.
As adults and larvae, most digeneans are small (Fig.
2a) and go completely unnoticed, even by experienced
anglers and discerning diners. However, a few types are
easily spotted. One example causes a condition often
called black spot disease, a name which incorrectly
implies that the fish is sick but which accurately
describes the appearance of scattered black flecks on
the skin. In this case, the cells of the host’s immune
system produce a black pigment and surround the
individual tiny fluke larvae located under the scales, but
the worms themselves are mostly colorless. Another
Fig. 1. The coiled protective sack of this larval tapeworm in an example of a noticeable fluke is the wahoo worm
amberjack fillet was about a foot long once unraveled, but the (Hirudinella ventricosa) (Fig. 2b) that is comparable in size
infective larval worm inside, just like the excysted larval trout to a person’s finger. It can be commonly found in the
worm (inset, magnified scolex), was only a few millimeters long. stomachs of wahoo and other blue water sport fishes.
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Fig. 3. A heavy, mixed infection of larval nematodes (darker
coiled worms) and other parasitic worms (lighter round objects),
encysted in the connective tissue around a red drum’s intestine.

intestine, alongside cestodes and digeneans, where
they too can easily distribute their eggs into the
environment with the host’s waste. As with cestodes,
a small animal, often a copepod, serves as the
first host in the food chain for newly hatched
roundworm larvae.
A few types of roundworms are often noticed by
Florida anglers (Fig. 3). Larvae belonging to species of
Contracaecum are relatively large and can encyst in great
numbers in the connective tissue around the internal
organs. The large, blood-red females of the family
Philometridae are also difficult to miss, particularly
those that live in the gonads (roe sack or testes) of
many Florida sport fish species. The species that infects
Fig. 2.(a) A nearly microscopic fluke from the digestive tract of
red drum gonads, Philometra floridensis, can be about
red snapper and (b) a biologist using tweezers to manipulate a three feet long when unraveled. Similar species infect
pair of giant flukes from a wahoo. grouper and snapper and occasionally may hang like
scarlet streamers from the vent of a fish that has been
reeled up from the bottom.
Roundworms
Many roundworms (nematode species) are not
parasitic, but others are among the most serious Crustaceans
human parasites, and a select few from the marine The crustaceans that parasitize fish, usually isopods
environment can cause illness. For example, the or copepods, are not worms at all but can have
anisakid species that parasitize marine mammals can unusual bodies specialized to suit their parasitic life
survive long enough in the human body to cause the habits, and in some cases they might be mistaken for
disease anisakiasis. worms. Although, they are external parasites, they
Roundworms are not closely related to flatworms. may have some parts buried inside the host’s flesh.
Their bodies are long, tubular, and pointed at each end. They have simple life cycles that do not require
Unable to extend and contract like the flatworms, multiple hosts.
roundworms move by wriggling their bodies in a Parasitic isopods (Fig. 4a-c) are recognizable as
serpentine motion. relatives of the terrestrial woodlice (roly poly or pill
Complex life cycles are the rule for parasitic bug) which can be found hiding under logs, rocks, and
roundworms. Again, humans typically encounter flower pots. Perhaps the most spectacular examples
larvae, not adults, either in the muscle or body cavity are in the family Cymothoidae. Individuals become
of a sport fish host. The adults often reside in the males first before growing and transforming into larger
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Fig. 4. Cymothoid isopods found (a) on the fin of a triple tail,
(b) under the gill of a pinfish and (c) in the mouth of a
ballyhoo.

females. Many species reach large sizes for a parasite
(up to about 1½” long) and can be found on the skin, Fig. 5. A copepod with egg cases protrudes from a mullet’s tail,
fins, gills (Fig. 4b), and even inside the mouth (Fig. and the bizarre, eyeless head of a similar specimen taken from
4c). Mouth dwelling isopods are sometimes a jack crevalle (inset; magnified).
misleadingly said to eat and then “replace” their hosts’
tongues. Although their needle-sharp, hooked legs
and piercing, sucking mouthparts can severely damage Research
the tongue, sometimes to the point that there isn’t The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
much of it left, this is a consequence of their true, studies fish parasites, especially those that infect sport
specialized feeding habit. Like the ticks humans can fish and pose a risk to the health of cultured fish at
pick up in back-country areas, at least during some stock enhancement facilities. This allows us to ensure
stages of development these tongue-biters puncture that hatchery fish are healthy and not infected with
their host’s skin in order to draw blood meals. Even unusual parasites that could harm wild populations.
though mouth dwelling isopods suck blood, cause We survey the parasites of wild fishes in part to
tissue damage, and make less room for food and determine which parasite communities are normal and
oxygenated water to pass through the mouth, there to provide information to the public about the types of
is little evidence that these parasites cause fish to parasites that are found in Florida waters. We often
become weak or even interfere with feeding. discover and describe Florida parasite species that are
Nevertheless, their usefulness as prosthetic tongues new to science.
is highly questionable. Fishing license revenue and the
Parasitic copepods exhibit some truly bizarre federal Sport Fish Restoration
physical adaptations and may look nothing like their Program are important sources of
non-parasitic, often planktonic, relatives. In fact, adults funding for sport fish research. The
may be barely recognizable as crustaceans, except to program is a user-pay, user-benefit
specialists. Some bury their anchor-like heads at the system funded by a tax on sales of
end of long stalks (Fig. 5 inset) deep inside the fish recreational fishing equipment and
muscle. A portion of the hind body and a pair of long motor boat fuel. The program supplies three dollars
skinny egg cases are visible externally (Fig. 5), and are for every one dollar provided by the state for projects
easily mistaken for worms. that improve fishing and boating opportunities.

December 2015

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
100 8th Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • (727) 896-8626 • MyFWC.com/Research

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