The unusual blue color polymorphism of lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) is the subject of much speculation but little empirical research; ~20% of lingcod individuals exhibit this striking blue color morph, which is discrete from and found within the same populations as the more common brown morph. In other species, color polymorphisms are intimately linked with host–parasite interactions, which led us to ask whether blue coloration in lingcod might be associated with parasitism, either as cause or effect. To test how color and parasitism are related in this host species, we performed parasitological dissection of 89 lingcod individuals collected across more than 26 degrees of latitude from Alaska, Washington, and California, USA. We found that male lingcod carried 1.89 times more parasites if they were blue than if they were brown, whereas there was no difference in parasite burden between blue and brown female lingcod. Blue individuals of both sexes had lower hepatosomatic index (i.e., relative liver weight) values than did brown individuals, indicating that blueness is associated with poor body condition. The immune systems of male vertebrates are typically less effective than those of females, due to the immunocompromising properties of male sex hormones; this might explain why blueness is associated with elevated parasite burdens in males but not in females. What remains to be determined is whether parasites induce physiological damage that produces blueness or if both blue coloration and parasite burden are driven by some unmeasured variable, such as starvation. Although our study cannot discriminate between these possibilities, our data suggest that the immune system could be involved in the blue color polymorphism–an exciting jumping-off point for future research to definitively identify the cause of lingcod blueness and a hint that immunocompetence and parasitism may play a role in lingcod population dynamics.
National Science Foundation
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Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
Chelsea L. Wood, Katie L. Leslie, Alanna Greene, Laurel S. Lam, Bonnie Basnett, Scott L. Hamilton, and Jameal F. Samhouri. "The weaker sex: Male lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) with blue color polymorphism are more burdened by parasites than are other sex–color combinations" PLoS ONE (2021). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0261202