Parasitic castration

Parasitic castration is the strategy, by a parasite, of blocking reproduction by its host, completely or in part, to its own benefit. This is one of six major strategies within parasitism.

Crab with egg sac of the parasitic barnacle Sacculina carcini. The parasite stops reproduction in its host, the crab, and stimulates the female crab to disperse parasite eggs with the same behavior that she would normally use for her own eggs.[1]

Evolutionary strategyEdit

The parasitic castration strategy, which results in the reproductive death of the host, can be compared with the parasitoid strategy, which results in the host's death. Both parasitoids and parasitic castrators tend to be similar to their host in size, whereas most non-castrating parasites are orders of magnitude smaller than the host. In both strategies, an infected host is much less hospitable to new parasites than an uninfected one.[2]

A parasite that ends the reproductive life of its host theoretically liberates a significant fraction of the host's resources, which can now be used to benefit the parasite. The fraction of intact host energy spent on reproduction includes not just gonads and gametes but also secondary sexual characteristics, mate-seeking behavior, competition, and care for offspring. Infected hosts may have a different appearance, lacking said sex characteristics and sometimes even devoting more energy to growth, resulting in gigantism.[3] The evolutionary parasitologist Robert Poulin suggests that parasitic castration may result in prolonged host life, benefiting the parasite.[4]

Parasitic castration may be direct, as in Hemioniscus balani, a parasite of hermaphroditic barnacles which feeds on ovarian fluid, so that its host loses female reproductive ability but still can function as a male.[5] Parasitic castration may equally be indirect, as when a parasite diverts host energy from developing gonads, or secretes castrating hormones.[4]

The parasitic castration strategy is used by some larval trematode parasites of snails and some isopod and barnacle parasites of crustaceans.[3] For example, 18 species of trematodes parasitically castrate the California horn snail, Cerithidea californica.[6]

Certain other effects of a parasite on its host may appear similar to parasitic castration, such as the host's immune system diverting energy from reproduction in response to numerous parasites that singly would have no impact on fecundity or fertility, or parasitoids that may consume reproductive organs first.[3]

Taxonomic rangeEdit

Parasite group Parasite species Host group Host species Remarks
Protista Sporozoa Mackinnonia tubificis Annelida Oligochaete Tubifex tubifex Destroys gonad[2]
Protista Haplosporidia Urosporidium charletti Cestoda Catenotaenia dendritica "Hypercastrator" (a hyperparasite that castrates the parasite it parasitizes)[2]
Platyhelminthes Trematoda Bucephalus mytili Mollusca Bivalvia or Gastropoda various species Destroys gonad, host grows larger[2]
Platyhelminthes Cestoda various species Pisces Cyprinidae various species Destroys gonad, behavioral changes[2]
Arthropoda Isopoda Hemioniscus balani Arthropoda Cirripedia various barnacles Drains ovarian fluid of hermaphrodite, but spares male function[5]
Arthropoda Cirripedia Sacculina Arthropoda Decapoda various crabs Atrophies gonads, behavioral changes, partially feminizes males and stops regeneration of crab legs[2]
Arthropoda Strepsiptera twisted-wing flies Arthropoda Hymenoptera or Hemiptera various species Males feminized, females produce no eggs but instead disperse eggs of parasite[1]
Platyhelminthes Cestoda Flamingolepis liguloides Arthropoda Artemia spp. Destroys gonads, behavioral changes[7]
Arthropoda Hymenoptera Crematogaster sjostedti Plant Acacia drepanolobium Ant removes axillary meristems, sterilizing trees.[8][9]


  1. ^ a b Zimmer, Carl (August 2000). "Do Parasites Rule the World?". Discover. Retrieved 19 February 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Kuris, Armand M. (1974). "Trophic interactions: similarity of parasitic castrators to parasitoids" (PDF). Quarterly Review of Biology. 49 (2): 129–148. doi:10.1086/408018.
  3. ^ a b c Lafferty, Kevin D.; Kuris, Armand M. (2009). "Parasitic castration: the evolution and ecology of body snatchers". Trends in Parasitology. 25 (12): 564–572. doi:10.1016/ PMID 19800291.
  4. ^ a b Poulin, Robert (2007). Evolutionary Ecology of Parasites (2nd ed.). Springer. pp. 106, 111–114. ISBN 978-0-691-12084-3.
  5. ^ a b Blower, S. M.; Roughgarden, J. (1988). "Parasitic castration: host species preferences, size-selectivity and spatial heterogeneity" (PDF). Oecologia. 75 (4): 512–515. doi:10.1007/BF00776413. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2011-02-11.
  6. ^ Hechinger, R. F. (2010). "Mortality affects adaptive allocation to growth and reproduction: field evidence from a guild of body snatchers". BMC Evolutionary Biology. 10: 136. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-136. PMC 2887408. PMID 20459643.
  7. ^ Yong, Ed (January 2013). "Parasites Make Their Hosts Sociable So They Get Eaten". National Geographic. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  8. ^ Stanton, M. L.; Palmer, T. M.; Young, T. P.; Evans, A.; Turner, M. L. (1999). "Sterilization and canopy modification of a swollen thorn acacia tree by a plant-ant". Nature. 401 (6753): 578–581. doi:10.1038/44119.
  9. ^ Hall, S. R.; Becker, C.; Caceres, C. E. (2007-05-22). "Parasitic castration: a perspective from a model of dynamic energy budgets". Integrative and Comparative Biology. Oxford University Press. 47 (2): 295–309. doi:10.1093/icb/icm057.