A tale of the ciliate tail: investigation into the adaptive significance of this sub-cellular structure. Academic Article uri icon


  • Ciliates can form an important link between the microbial loop and higher trophic levels primarily through consumption by copepods. This high predation pressure has resulted in a number of ciliate species developing rapid escape swimming behaviour. Several species of these escaping ciliates also possess a long contractile tail for which the functionality remains unresolved. We use high-speed video, specialized optics and novel fluid visualization tools to evaluate the role of this contractile appendage in two free-swimming ciliates, Pseudotontonia sp. and Tontonia sp., and compare the performance to escape swimming behaviour of a non-tailed species, Strobilidium sp. Here, we show that 'tailed' species respond to hydrodynamic disturbances with extremely short response latencies (less than or equal to 0.89 ms) by rapidly contracting the tail which carries the cell body 2-4 cell diameters within a few milliseconds. This provides an advantage over non-tailed species during the critical first 10-30 ms of an escape. Two small, short-lived vortex rings are created during contraction of the tail. The flow imposed by the ciliate jumping can be described as two well-separated impulsive Stokeslets and the overall flow attenuates spatially as r(-3). The high initial velocities and spatio-temporal arrangement of vortices created by tail contractions appear to provide a means for rapid escape as well as hydrodynamic 'camouflage' against fast striking, mechanoreceptive predators such as copepods.

publication date

  • August 7, 2015