A recent discovery at the laboratory has shown that a certain type of parasitic fluke has a highly organized, caste-based social structure similar to those of honey bees, providing scientists with additional tools for understanding how animals interact with members of their own species.

“Of basic significance, a high level of social organization has been discovered in simple primitive worms that live as parasites in snails,” Armand Kuris, professor of zoology at UCSB and principle researcher of the study, said. “Now social organization can be more easily studied in Petri dishes.”

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A deshelled California horn snail, which is home to a colony of flukes that also defend the snail from other invading parasites.

This finding is just the beginning of the further research into the subject of social organization, since the simplicity of the organisms makes them much easier to study than larger, more complex animals. In addition, Ryan Hechinger, an assistant research biologist at UCSB’s Marine Science Institute, said the finding has shed light on the development of soldier castes within animal societies.

“This discovery is indeed foundational in opening the door to all sorts of future work using these parasites to study sociality. However, discovering the reproductive division of labor in these worms already lends insight into the role of ecological factors in driving the adaptive evolution of a soldier caste,” Hechinger said. “This becomes clear when we compare trematodes to the other systems known to have soldiers, as we do in the paper.”

These worms are also unique in the fact that they have soldiers to defend the snail from infection from other worms. So even though these worms have more or less taken over the snail, they are protecting their host from other organisms.

“These worms defend the snail from other worms, some of which cause harmful tropical diseases,” Kuris said.

A small but potentially helpful finding in this research is, according to Kuris, that the protection from the worms could have possible biomedical applications. It is possible that they can be used to help people who face infection from blood flukes, which Kuris said infect up to 300 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“These worms can potentially be used as a biological control agent against disease-causing worms,” Kuris said. “This could be a cost-effective method to control these serious public health problems. A low tech approach against diseases for which high tech approaches have failed.”