On this page, Nematode
characteristics - overview - body pattern - parasites in whales - parasites in humans - parasites in bumblebees
Nematodes are everywhere! About 80,000 species of
Nematode have been described so far, but some authorities estimate that there
may be as many as 500,000 to 100 million species in all! They live in all
environments and can parasitize nearly all animals and plants. In fact there is
scarcely an animal alive that does not harbour a population of parasitic
nematodes at some stage in its life, and that does include you! The soil-dwelling species tend to inhabit the top few centimetres of soil, and make thrashing movements when uncovered.
Around 50 different species are known parasites of humans (see the next page for more details). Luckily most of
the time they are so harmless that we don't even know they are there.
Ubiquity To give you an idea of just how ubiquitous they are:
species may be up to nine metres long, but most species are less than five
centimetres long. The longest known nematode is found in the placenta of sperm whales.
Compared to other phyla the external structure of the Nematoda is very uniform.
They all have slender,
elongated bodies with tapered ends. Some have specialised mouthparts with hooks and stylets, and the
only other projecting parts are concerned with reproduction.
The cuticle can
have as many as nine layers, with cross fibres forming a spiral network. The cuticle is non-cellular and secreted by the epidermis, and is mainly collagen laid down in three criss-crossing layers.
The body is a high pressure pseudocoel within a cuticle covered body wall with only
Locomotion is basically wriggling or thrashing with the
longitudinal muscles on one side contracting, while the other side expands, deforming the body into S-shaped curves. The
cuticle prohibits radial expansion, so serves the purpose of circular muscles.
The muscle arm extends to either the ventral or dorsal nerve cord. The pseudocoel functions as a hydrostatic skeleton. There are no circular muscles, and it is the body movement which moves food from the mouth to the pharynx, intestine, rectum and anus.
Males are usually smaller than females and the posterior is curled into a hook.
This can be easily seen in the drawing below. This shows a male and
female Ascaris sp. in the gut of a pig.
Above is part of a whale's kidney infected with several Crassicauda boopis, the fin whale round worm. The head of the worm is found in the blood vessels in the liver, the middle in the whale's kidney, and the tail end in the reproductive and excretory system. The entire length of the worm can be as long as 8 m.
Below is a piece of a false-killer whale's gut which has a heavy infestation of Bolbosoma capitatum, the thorny-headed worm. There have been cases where infestations reach up to 600 worms per square metre of gut.
Below is a terrestrial nematode Mermis nigrescens I found entwined around a poppy leaf after a heavy shower. It was 5 - 10 cm long, and the little red tip is at the head end.
It emerges after rain. and climbs on vegetation to lay its eggs. The eggs are eaten by earwigs and grasshoppers, and the nematode larvae hatch inside the host and thrive.
When the host is fully grown the nematode bursts out of the body cavity of the host killing it. While inside the host it has been coiled up, and on hatching it stretches out to several times the host's length. It takes up so much space, and absorbs so much nutrition that the host is usually not able to reproduce. Then it burrows into the soil and remains there for up to 2 years, before climbing vegetation after rain to lay its eggs. It is eaten by spiders and snails.
Above is Dorylamius stagnalis, a freshwater nematode. It is found in mud, and among plant roots at the bottom of ponds. Its mouth has a stylets for piercing, and it grows to 5 - 8 mm long.
One nematode, Caenorhabditis
elegans, has become very well known as it was the very first multicellular
organism to have its full genome sequenced. It is unusual in that it has a fixed number of cells (959) in its body.
bombi (above), a nematode infecting bumblebee queens. This parasite is only found in
queens and affects her behaviour.
The bumblebee queen is infected by an adult
female worm while she hibernates in the soil. It is believed that the nematode enters through her mouthparts. Around 12% of queens are infected, and this can rise to as much as 50% for late emerging queens.
In the spring when the queen emerges from
hibernation the worm begins to grow, then it turns its whole reproductive
system inside out. The uterus grows and grows till it is between 1-2
centimetres long, while the rest of the worm is only a thin thing of a few
In a normal queen a hormone would be released and her ovaries
would start to develop stimulating her to start building a nest, but somehow
this does not happen in an infected queen.
Meanwhile the worm releases up to
100,000 eggs into the blood of the queen, these eggs hatch and develop, moving
into the gut and reproductive system. During this time the queen feeds only for
herself, she makes no attempt to find a nest site, and her ovaries do not
develop. Often she returns to her hibernation site, here the worm larvae are
discharged with faeces into the soil. The mature worms mate, and wait for
another queen to use the site to hibernate.