The role of invasive tunicates as reservoirs of molluscan pathogens.
Ascidian tunicates frequently display rapid expansion when introduced beyond their native range and are considered successful invaders. This invasive potential may be exacerbated by a warming climate, allowing for the occupation of environmental niches previously held by native species. Research into tunicate invasion ecology is prevalent, but less is known about their role in pathogen maintenance. This study investigated the impact of invasive tunicates on the maintenance of pathogens that affect commercial bivalves, including the cultured species Ostrea edulis (European flat oyster) and Crassostrea gigas (Pacific oyster), and the fished species Cerastoderma edule (Common cockle). Focal pathogens included ostreid herpesvirus OsHV-1 μVar, Vibrio aestuarianus, Bonamia ostreae and Minchinia spp. The range of pathogens in their molluscan hosts was determined and the tunicates Botrylloides violaceus, Didemnum vexillum and Styela clava were then screened for these same pathogens, using both field samples from oyster culture sites and marinas and a series of laboratory cohabitation trials. Sample sites reflected areas close to and further away from known pathogen sources. PCR, Sanger sequencing and histology confirmed the presence of B. ostreae and Minchinia mercenariae-like in S. clava, and V. aestuarianus was confirmed by qPCR in B. violaceus and D. vexillum. Furthermore, histology confirmed Minchinia mercenariae-like sporonts in S. clava suggesting that the tunicate can facilitate replication of this species. S. clava also maintained B. ostreae in tanks with no oysters present. The results indicate that tunicates can act as reservoirs of infection in areas where disease occurs and potentially transport diseases to uninfected sites.