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Vitularia miliaris, ectoparasite, foot scar, feeding tube, sclerochronology


This study documents one of the slowest feeding behaviors ever recorded for a muricid gastropod in one of the most biotically rigorous regions on the planet. In Pacific Panama, Vitularia salebrosa attacks mollusks by drilling through their shells. The duration of attacks estimated by isotope sclerochronology of oyster shells collected during attacks in progress ranges from 90 to 230 days, while experimental observation of interactions documented one attack greater than 103 days. The prolonged nature of attacks suggests that V. salebrosa is best characterized as an ectoparasite than as a predator, which is the ancestral condition in the Muricidae. An ectoparasitic lifestyle is also evident in the unusual interaction traces of this species, which include foot scars, feeding tunnels and feeding tubes, specialized soft anatomy, and in the formation of malefemale pairs, which is consistent with protandrous hermaphroditism, as is typical in sedentary gastropods. To delay death of its host, V. salebrosa targets renewable resources when feeding, such as blood and digestive glands. A congener, Vitularia miliaris from the Indo-Pacific, has an identical feeding biology. The origin and persistence of extremely slow feeding in the tropics challenges our present understanding of selective pressures influencing the evolution of muricid feeding behaviors and morphological adaptations. Previously, it has been suggested that faster feeding is advantageous because it permits predators to spend a greater proportion of time hiding in enemy-free refugia or to take additional prey, the energetic benefits of which could be translated into increased fecundity or defenses. The benefits of exceptionally slow feeding have received little consideration. In the microhabitat preferred by V. salebrosa (beneath boulders), it is possible that prolonged interactions with hosts decrease vulnerability to enemies by reducing the frequency of risky foraging events between feedings. Ectoparasitic feeding through tunnels by V. salebrosa may also reduce competitive interactions with kleptoparasites (e.g., crabs, snails) that steal food through the gaped valves of dead or dying hosts.

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The Nautilus, v. 123, issue 3, p. 121-136