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Is it feasible for an ectoparasite such as a a Tick to create a symbiotic relationship with its host? The hosts feeds the tick and the tick has some sort of beneficial substance within its saliva. This could be some sort of naturally evolved anti-fungal or anti-biotic. This relationship would allow those with the tick to out compete those without the tick due to superior disease resistance.

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    $\begingroup$ I would call this a symbiote, rather than a parasite, since by definition a parasite takes without providing something useful to its host. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Jul 13 '18 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ I guess I'm looking for an ok from everyone else I guess! I didn't know if there would be any problems I hadn't thought of! @Raditz_35 $\endgroup$ – Thalassan Jul 13 '18 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ It is feasible. Humans already have a ton of beneficial bacteria living in the stomach that help us digest food. Termites have something similar going on. The concern with tick scenario is that it can fall off easily, so it will probably have to burrow under the skin. $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Jul 13 '18 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'll write up an answer in a few hours, but look up the origin of mitochondria. $\endgroup$ – E.D. Jul 13 '18 at 22:31
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Conditionally beneficial parasite.

A cool thing for a fiction would be some parasite which was not beneficial but which caused some symptom that the host could use in a particular circumstance.

For example, toxoplasmosis. https://www.nature.com/news/parasite-makes-mice-lose-fear-of-cats-permanently-1.13777

A parasite that infects up to one-third of people around the world may have the ability to permanently alter a specific brain function in mice, according to a study published in PLoS ONE today1.

Toxoplasma gondii is known to remove rodents’ innate fear of cats. The new research shows that even months after infection, when parasites are no longer detectable, the effect remains. This raises the possibility that the microbe causes a permanent structural change in the brain.

Crazy bravery like this means mice get eaten by cats. But suppose you were a warrior mouse and you craved the crazy brave. Maybe toxo in the brain could do that for you.


A real life example: hookworms to treat autoimmunity.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/23/parasitic-hookworm-jasper-lawrence-tim-adams

While in the field in Papua New Guinea in the late 1980s, Pritchard noted that patients infected with the Necator americanus hookworm were rarely subject to the whole range of autoimmune-related illnesses, including hay fever and asthma. In the years since, Pritchard had developed a thesis to support this observation through painstaking clinical trials (which began after he infected himself with 50 hookworm). The thesis proved that hookworm, in small numbers, seemed able to regulate inflammatory immune responses in their hosts

Hookworms are looking out for their own interests by crippling the immune system of their host. But if the immune system of the host has gone rogue, crippling it up is helpful and apparently hookworms produce fewer side effects than pharmacologic methods accomplishing the same end.


So your parasite - it produces symptoms which advance its own cause. The parasite is not your friend. It cares only about itself. But can you use those symptoms to advance your cause too? I am reminded of the infected demon arm of Prince Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Not good in the long term, a demon arm. But very useful in the short term it turns out.

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The medical use of parasites offers fascinating examples.

A leech is a parasite in general, but for certain health problems it has an effect that potentially outweighs the harm.

Immune suppressant worms presumably are big picture bad, but seem to give specific auto-immune and allergy sufferers less problems than they had before.

Additionally with some non-obvious conditions some strictly bad changes to an individuals potential to reproduce might be of positive value to their genes through relatives or already having offspring:

Some parasites modify the hosts reproduction to divert that energy to the parasite, if the parasite only takes most of that energy the social network of the host might come out ahead.

Some parasites compete with each other, resulting in a host less disadvantaged than having either parasite alone. Similarly in cases where one of the parasites kills the other(s) it might not be the one most deteriorates to the host. If (like most species including humans) there are a lot of common parasites a super parasite that wipes out the others might be a net win even if it ends up killing the host eventually.

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This is literally the definition of symbiosis. The only issue in your question, as pointed out in comments, is that a parasite is definitionally not a symbiote, as a parasite derives a benefit for itself while damaging its host. Symbiotic relationships involve benefits to both organisms.

There are tons of examples of this in the world right now. Think of remora cleaning sharks in order to feed themselves and avoid predators, or (again already mentioned in comments) mitochondria in animal cells.

From a worldbuilding perspective, the key elements are that both organisms derive a net benefit from the relationship, and exist in such a way that they can interact to produce those benefits (like living physically close enough to interact, as in the remora, or even becoming incorporated into the same larger organism, as in the mitochondria). The net benefit piece means that there can still be negative consequences to the interactions, just that the balance must tip towards the favorable.

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Take a look at anglerfish. The female is this gigantic thing, and the male is super-tiny. He bites the female and gets embedded in there. In time, his body wastes away, and he's little more than a sack of sperm for the female to use when she needs eggs fertilized.

There are plenty of symbiotic relationships like this in the wild. Just think of something the host needs and something the symbiote needs where pairing would help both achieve their separate needs.

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  • $\begingroup$ those anglerfish dudes have got it made. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 13 '18 at 20:31
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    $\begingroup$ As a note, the anglerfish do not have a symbiotic relationship. For it to be symbiosis there have to be multiple species involved, and both need to derive a benefit. That's the definition. $\endgroup$ – Upper_Case Jul 13 '18 at 22:40

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