Parasites are thought to diversify with their host species, but the theory has rarely been tested. Kevin Johnson at the University of Illinois and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of 46 species of lice that parasitise birds or mammals, and two non-parasitic bark lice, and constructed an evolutionary tree. They estimated that parasitic lice first emerged between 90 and 100 million years ago, but didn’t begin to diversify until 66 million years ago – around the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction.
How do you make a parasite less harmful? It might be as simple as forcing them to stick around.
Amanda Gibson from Indiana University performed experimental evolution with the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans and a parasitic bacteria (Serratia marcescens), comparing different scenarios for how the parasite was passed on. Under most circumstances, parasites continued to cause their hosts harm throughout the 20-generation experiment. Only when each strain of parasite was allowed to infect the same host strain, generation after generation, did the parasite evolve to become less harmful.
Few species go through life without interacting with an other, but some interactions are more intimate than others. Pollination is an example of an interaction that, in some species, has become very intimate indeed! Most dedicated pollinators show adaptations to this, such as pollen baskets in bees, but these are often generic adaptations that enable the individual to visit many different species of plant. Equally, plants have adaptations to attract a variety of different insects. Different pollinators (bees, birds, moths) have different visual systems, and thus different flower colouration can be used to attract pollinators of different species. The timing of flower and pollinator emergence is also carefully timed in order to ensure maximum cross-over between the two. Pollinators generally gain food from the relationship, whilst plants achieve dispersal of their genes without having to physically move themselves.
Some plant-pollinator interactions are more intimate, more specific. This can lead to more extreme adaptations, as the two species become increasingly specialised for interacting with one another. Possibly the most extreme plant-pollinator relationship exists between the fig and the fig wasp. Young fig wasps emerge as larvae inside a tiny fig. The larvae feed on the fruit of the fig until they are ready to mature into adults, which again occurs within their fig prison. As adults, the wasps mate, collecting pollen from their birth fig before they leave. The male fig wasps then dig their way out of the fruit, creating a path for the females to emerge from. The male fig wasps are not well suited to life outside the fig, however, and often die shortly after making their escape. The females fly off and find a new fig plant where they can lay their eggs. Squeezing through the tiny entrance hole, known as the ostiole, the female enters a new fig and deposits her eggs inside the fruit, simultaneously depositing pollen on the fig’s reproductive parts.
Parasitoid wasps are a little known, but extremely prolific group of wasps, who provide one of the best examples of evidence for evolution that I’ve come across. Parasitoid wasps have a particularly gruesome way of life. They make a living by laying their eggs inside the larvae of another insect, often a caterpillar. As the young wasp develops, it devours the host from the inside out, eventually emerging and killing the host.
Parasitoid wasps are found in 37 different families of a single order, the Hymenoptera, which contains all bees, wasps and ants. There are thousands, maybe even millions of species of parasitoid wasp, each preying on a different host, utilising a different set of tactics to subdue their victim. Many parasitoid wasps are considered to be beneficial to humans because they kill garden pests such as aphids. But this is not the important part of the story.