Here is a thought. How much of you is actually you? Have you ever considered that there could be a tiny worm or some kind of virus inside of you controlling your every want, desire and need? Talk about manipulation, some of the creepiest (and smartest) creepy crawlies on this planet love getting their way, and will stop at nothing to do so. If that isn’t badass I don’t know what is. I’ve always had a fascination with parasites that attack us and our animal counterparts in interesting and terrifying ways. In honor of the Halloween season, here are three of my top favs and their terrifyingly gruesome ways. (Look ma, a rhyme!)
1. Emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa)
An emerald cockroach wasp emerging from an American cockroach
At one-sixth the size of its prey, the emerald cockroach wasp doesn’t let its size define it. Found in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa and the Pacific islands, it is a beautiful insect. You’re probably will be happy to hear that it targets cockroaches. How it does so is borderline God Of War level relentless. First it delivers a simple paralyzing sting. Then it hijacks the roach’s mind, basically injecting its version of a quaalude, an elixir of neurotransmitters, into its brain. This turns the roach into a helpless zombie.
After a quick suck of recharging roach blood, the wasp chews off the roach’s antennae and leads it to its nest like a dog on a lead. There it lays its eggs on the roach’s abdomen, and barricades it in with pebbles. But the hapless roach doesn’t even try to escape, even though it physically could. It just sits there submissively, as the wasp larva eats it alive. Finally the adult wasp bursts out of the cockroach’s remains in a rainstorm of tiny new wasps on the hunt for their next victim.
2. Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii)
Toxoplasmosis parasites (Credit: Eye of Science/Science Photo Library)
This single-celled creature is perhaps the most famous of all host-manipulating parasites, and it is much closer than you would like to think. I can just imagine it’s Google search now, full of cute cat videos we all love to get. However, it is for a more sinister reason. It mainly infects rats and mice, in order to be eaten by a cat so that it can reproduce.
Infected rats and mice lose their fear of the smell of cats, according to a 2007 study. Instead, they become attracted to a pheromone in the cats’ urine and honest to God, basically throw themselves at cat’s to be eaten. It’s the animal world equivalent of “Look at me, I look so yummy and available, please eat me.” The animal becomes less likely to hide under the floorboards and more likely to sniff around its feline predators, putting the parasite on course for its ultimate destination: the cat’s stomach.
But wait, it get’s worse. Ladies and gentlewomen, believe it or not, it can be passed to humans. (Insert widespread pandemonium) Between 30 and 60% of people are infected by T. gondii. We are unsure about how much or even if the parasite is capable of affecting human behavior. In 2006 Kevin Lafferty of the US Geological Survey in Santa Barbara, California found some evidence of personality changes in people infected by the parasite. It’s interesting to note that Toxoplasmosis is also unusually common in people with schizophrenia, but again it’s not clear what that means or how significant it is. Schizophrenia is a very complicated syndrome, and its generally accepted that it has multiple causes. There are plenty of infected people that don’t have schizophrenia, and plenty of people with schizophrenia who aren’t infected. So the connection is still very unclear.
Yep, you heard me right, that’s the flu. In 2010 Chris Reiber of Binghamton University in New York and her colleagues found evidence that the influenza virus makes people more sociable. I can personally say I have experienced this. When I get sick, I have the overwhelming urge to go out and be social. Have photo shoots, go to mixers or lounges and all the while, I can barely open my eyes.
They found that people given a flu vaccine interacted with significantly more people, and in significantly larger groups, in the 48 hours after being exposed, compared with the 48 hours before. The infected hosts were more likely to head out to bars and parties.
It’s only one study, and quite a small one, but it does make a certain sinister sense. It would benefit the virus if its host passed it on to as many people as possible, before the symptoms started and they became bedridden.
Honorable Mention: Enjoy this informational video about Guinea Worms. The only reason I did not include hell’s version of an earthworm is because due to recent efforts, cases have dramatically dropped and you shouldn’t be worrying about this one anytime soon.
Happy Halloween Tribe!
Until next time,