Monday, October 5, 2015

Parasites Aplenty!

When it comes to the strangest things evolution has ever managed to produce, parasites have to be near the top of the list. By attaching themselves to a host, the parasite can often times supersede another creature's natural life cycle. In rare cases, they can even control the mind of their host. Disgusting! Here are some of the worst parasites I've ever heard of. They're not quite the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies... but they're damn close.

Tongue Eating Parasite [Cymothoa exigua]: Thankfully, this devious creature only attacks fish. By entering through their gills, it grows there before moving on to the fish's mouth. Once there, it attaches to the tongue and slowly feeds on the fresh blood supply. Taking great care not to completely suck all of the blood out of the fish, it only ingests enough to let the tongue totally waste away. Once the tongue is gone, the parasite assumes the place of the mouth organ and eats whatever the fish tries to consume. When it comes time to mate, a partner again enters through the fish's gills and copulates right there in the fish's mouth! To give birth, the female parasite does so in the throat of the fish and releases a multitude of babies. That poor, poor fish.

Sacculina: This is an entire Genus of barnacles devoted to wrecking the lives of male crabs. First, they inject themselves into a hapless male crab, where they grow until ready to emerge. The Sacculina bursts through an opening in the crab's exoskeleton near their genitalia. If this wasn't awful enough, things are only now about to get horrific. The Sacculina emasculates the male crab and starts tampering with his hormones. Over time, the crab becomes sterile. Throughout the process, the crab's appearance changes from male to female. The shift is so all-encompassing that the male crab believes it's a girl; it will even perform female mating ritual dances! What a bummer. Bye-bye crab testicles!

Zombie Ant Fungus [Ophiocordyceps unilateralis]: This bad-ass fungus is just what it sounds like. Living in tropical rain forests, this fungus attacks the Camponotus leonardi ant. It infests and takes over the ant's brain. Yet, here's where the story takes a sharp turn into the realm of uncanny. After the ant has been possessed, the fungus directs it to a very specific location under a strict set of environmental circumstances. Once there, the ant commits suicide via the "death grip" maneuver. Essentially, it locks it's mandibles down so hard upon a leave that it kills itself. Talk about a headache!
"The death grip occurred in very precise locations," the authors write. All of the C. leonardi ants studied in Thailand’s Khao Chong Wildlife Sanctuary had chomped down on the underside of a leaf, and 98 percent had landed on a vein. Most had: a) found their way to the north side of the plant, b) chomped on a leaf about 25 centimeters above the ground, c) selected a leaf in an environment with 94 to 95 percent humidity and d) ended up in a location with temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. The researchers called this specificity "remarkable."
-- Scientific American, "Fungus Makes Zombie Ants Do All The Work
It's amazing how much work the fungus puts into being successful. After the ant has been lead to the optimal set of conditions, it dies. The fungus will then reproduce within the ant's exoskeleton before exploding out the back of its head. The fungus will release its spores, endangering the lives of other nearby ants and insects. This is just about the most insanely intelligent parasite I've ever heard of. Let's hope it doesn't catch on to infecting human beings!

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