CIE Seminar Series – 2021: Going for a swim: manipulation of host phenotype by parasitic worms

SPEAKER: Prof Robert Poulin, Department of Zoology, University of Otago

DATE & TIME: Friday, 29th October 2021.

LOCATION: Seminar to be streamed via Zoom. Click HERE to connect (Meeting ID: 408 120 6183, Password: 06048505).

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The influence of parasitic organisms on the behaviour and ecology of their hosts is often disproportionate to their small size. This is particularly well-documented for the many parasites capable of manipulating the behaviour of their hosts in order to improve their own transmission.

I will briefly explore the circumstances in which natural selection has favoured the evolution of host manipulation by parasites. I will also provide historical insights into research trends in this area, leading to its recent integration with key themes in behavioural research, such as animal personality and the use of social networks to unravel animal interactions.

Finally, I will present new research into ‘how’ parasites actually take control of their host’s behaviour, focusing on two types of worms (mermithid nematodes and nematomorphs) that induce their terrestrial arthropod host to enter water for the parasite’s exit.

The mechanisms at play range from altered gene expression in the host’s brain indicated by proteomic and transcriptomic approaches, to the possibility that microbial partners carried by parasites are actually responsible for host manipulation.


Originally from Montreal, Canada, Robert obtained a BSc from McGill University and a PhD from Laval University, before eventually joining the University of Otago in 1992. Since arriving there, he has established a research programme in parasite ecology and evolution that focuses on broad questions but not on any particular taxa.

Currently, his research group has four main research directions. First, his lab investigates the forces shaping the evolution of parasites, in particular the evolution of life history traits such as body size, host specificity, the ability to manipulate host behaviour, and the complexity of the transmission pathways. Second, they are studying the role of parasites in aquatic ecosystems, i.e. how they affect community diversity and food web stability, and how parasitism may interact with climate change to influence the properties of ecosystems. Third, Robert has long been exploring large-scale patterns of parasite biodiversity and biogeography, searching for the processes behind the diversification and distribution of parasites and diseases. Finally, Robert and his team are now turning toward the role of parasite microbiomes in shaping the host-parasite interaction.

Robert was awarded Otago University’s Distinguished Research Medal in 2013, the Hutton Medal from the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2011 for outstanding contribution to animal sciences, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2001.

For more info on Robert’s work click HERE.

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Thanking you in advance!

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