by Piter Kehoma Boll
There’s one thing that I should do more often here, and that is presenting my own research for the readers of the blog, so today I am going to do exactly that.
As you may know, the group of organisms with which I work is the family Geoplanidae, commonly known as land planarians. Here in Brazil, the most speciose genus is Obama, of which I have talked in previous posts. This genus became considerably famous after one of its species, Obama nungara, became invasive in Europe, which called attention of the public especially because of the curious name of this genus, even though it has nothing to do with the former president of the United States.
Anyway, during my Master’s study, it became clear that species in the genus Obama feed on soft-bodied invertebrates, mainly slugs and snails, although some species also feed on earthworms or even other land planarians. Obama nungara, for example, feeds on all three groups, although it seems to have some preference for earthworms.
One common species of Obama in urbans areas of southern Brazil is Obama anthropophila, whose name, meaning “lover of humans” is a reference to this habit precisely. This species has a uniformly dark brown dorsal color, sometimes mottled by the mature testicles appearing as darker spots on the first half of the body. The diet of this species includes snails, slugs, nemerteans and other land planarians, especially of the genus Luteostriata, and more especially of the species Luteostriata abundans, which occurs very often in urbans areas too.
So I wondered… if O. anthropophila feeds on different types of invertebrates, does it mean that each type provides different nutritients, so that a mixed diet is necessary or more beneficial than one composed of a single prey type? To assess that, I divided adult specimens of O. anthropophila into three groups, each receving a different diet:
Group Dela: fed only with the common marsh slug, Deroceras laeve
Group Luab: fed only with the abundant yellow striped planarian, Luteostriata abundans
Group Mixed: fed with both prey species in an alternating way
The results were not what I expected. The Mixed group showed a lower survival rate than the groups receiving a single diet. Another interesting feature was that the Mixed group showed a tendency to skip the slug meal and eat only the planarian after some days receiving the alternating prey types.
Based on the hypothesis that a mixed diet is more nutritious, I was expecting the Mixed group to have the best performance, or at least being similar to the single-diet groups if there was no increase in nutritional value with an additional prey type. However, the results indicate that a mixed diet may be bad for the planarian, at least if the animal has to eat a different food on every meal.
We don’t know what causes this, but my idea is that maybe different prey types demand different metabolic processes, such as the production of different enzymes and stuff, and having to constantly reset your metabolism is too costly. As a result, the fitness of specimens receiving such a diet decreases and the animals start to avoid one of the food types, because eating less is less dangerous than mixing food.
Another interesting aspect is that planarians receiving a mixed diet, even though they died earlier, laid heavier egg capsules than the single-diet groups. Heavier egg capsules generally mean that they have more embryos or are more nutrient for the embryos, increasing the reproductive success. But how can a dying animal be better at reproducing than a healthy one?
Well, this may be related to the terminal investment hypothesis. It is thought, and proven in some groups, that an organism may increase its investment on reproduction when future reproductive events are not expected, i.e., when the organism “realizes” it is about to die, it puts all its effort to reproduce in order to garantee that its genes will pass successfully to future generations.
We cannot be sure about anything yet. More studies are necessary to better understand the relationship of land planarians and their food. What we can assure is that, just like Obama nungara, O. anthropophila may end up in Europe or anywhere else soon because its relatively broad diet and its proximity to humans make it a potential new species to be spread accidentally around the world.
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Boll PK, Marques D, & Leal-Zanchet AM (2020) Mind the food: Survival, growth and fecundity of a Neotropical land planarian (Platyhelminthes, Geoplanidae) under different diets. Zoology 138: 125722.
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* This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.