The Blue Ringed Octopus lives, or more accurately lurks, in the oceans around Australia.

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As shown here. (Image via http://www.cape-york-australia.com)

This is a phrase that should instantly raise red flags in your mind. ‘Lives in the Australian Ocean’ is one of those innocuous phrases that nonetheless warn of much pain, suffering and misery ahead, rather like ‘ ‘lets take this shortcut’, or ‘so I just had a few minor comments’, or ‘this resort is really off the beaten track, but worth it’. After all, what animals does one associate with the seas around Australia? Great White Sharks. Stonefish. The Sea-Wasp. Stingrays. Whatever the hell is was that ate Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967, who disappeared whilst swimming, in the only case I know of where a country just ‘lost’ a Prime Minister.

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This was ruled ‘completely non-suspicious’ by his successor, Prime Minister Shark. 

Actually, we can dial back a bit. ‘Octopus’ itself is a term that is a red flag. Because Octopuses (and yes, it is Octopuses, or possibly Octopodes, but definitely not Octopi, whatever my spellcheck might say) are weird.

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“A Blue Ringed Octopus (from Thinglink.com). 

 

They can squeeze through ridiculously small spaces, can move out of water to both escape and find food, and are notorious escape artists. They show problem solving abilities, have been seen to use tools, play, learn from watching other octopuses, and might even have personalities. Their brains, too, are big for invertebrates (with around 160 million neurons – comparable to that of a dog) (Of course, Octopus intelligence probably varies hugely between species – Ed). What’s more, they might have double that number of neurons divided between their eight arms, meaning that each of their arms can act, to some degree, independently (severed octopus arms jerk away from unpleasant stimuli, whilst a severed human arm will just lie there, bleeding, and not do anything, whilst a lot of people start shouting and asking hard questions).

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Just because the octopus looks like it is from a drug induced hallucination, doesn’t mean you should act as though you’re in a drug induced hallucination.  (Image from Slate.com)

Whilst its unclear how intelligent Octopuses are, its still unsettling to think that an Octopus, more closely related to a snail or clam than us, might be a surprisingly deep thinker, and comparable to a rat, dog or reality TV show contestant. The mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) can even impersonate a wide array of marine organisms, using a combination of movements and shifting colours, although the Australian government is still reluctant to accept my theory that Mr Holt was, actually, a mimic octopus himself, who simply grew bored with politics and wished to return to the sea.

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From ‘TheLiquidEarth.org’, showing how a mimic octopus mimics a flatfish, lionfish and sea-snake. 

 

 

Fortunately for us mammals, one reason why we probably don’t need to fear legions of super-intelligent octopuses arising from the deep to claim the lands in the name of their dark Gods is that they have very short lifespans and die after matingif they are not eaten by their mate first.

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“At least no one is getting stabbed with a penis this time”

Idiosepius pygmaeus, for example, only lives eighty days, whilst the relatively long lived Giant Pacific Octopus will still only last a couple of years. After mating, males soon lose appetite, control of their body movements, and show skin lesions as their immune systems shut down. Females lay their eggs and then guard them, not eating. To sustain this, they start to metabolise their own bodies for food, and starve to death as the eggs hatch. (Its likely this is down to  two reasons: firstly more of an octopus’ offspring are likely to survive if she guards the one clutch of eggs she lays, rather than laying several, and secondly octopuses have evolved to grow and reach maturity quickly, rather than having a slower paced, longer lifespan).

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Live fast, die young and leave a crazy corpse. (Image from Pbs.com)

This short lifespan, combined with the fact octopuses generally don’t exhibit much, if anything, in the way of social behaviours outside mating (social behaviour requires a certain degree of intelligence) might explain why octopus intelligence isn’t more obvious, and/or why we have not been enslaved by the Octopus-people to build vast temples to their hideous rulers.

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Unless, of course, this entire entry is being written by a mimic octopus to lull you into a false sense of superiority. 

 

 

However, even for an octopus that lurks in the oceans around Australia, the Blue Ringed Octopus is actually much worse than you might think. Consisting of at least ten species, all the octopuses in the genus Hapalochlaena are relatively small; reaching at most perhaps twenty centimetres long with some barely reaching a quarter of that, and weighing less than a hundred grams. By all accounts, they are somewhat docile and shy animals, spending most of their time hiding in burrows. They feed on small crabs, shrimp and fish and like many cephalopods can shift their colours to better blend in with their surroundings. Defying stereotypes, no species of Blue-Ringed Octopus can shoot ink. This makes them potentially good exhibits for aquariums. What makes them slightly less good exhibits is that they are lethally toxic and by far the most dangerous octopus to humans; with the average Hapalochlaena lunulata (Greater Blue Ringed)  octopus supposedly having enough venom to kill at least twenty six people.

In fairness, they do give some warning by suddenly flashing up to sixty brilliantly bright blue rings all over their bodies, showing they are prepared to bite if a predator or unlucky human gets too close. This effect is created by rings of ‘iridophores’ – stacked plates of guanine – that due to their structure reflect bright blue light in all directions. When the octopus is startled, it expands some muscles and contracts others to reveal the brilliant ring. To enhance the contrast further the octopus can generate dark rings around and within each ring using chromatophores – cells containing dark pigment.

(Why blue light? Well, blue light is the most ‘visible’ type of light underwater, with red light absorbed the easiest. Therefore, most marine organisms will be most sensitive to blue light. It has also been speculated that these flashing displays play a role during mating. Ed.)

And then, if you ignore the suddenly flashing octopus – it will bite you.

The good news is that the sting itself is almost painless.

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“That’s good – wait a minute, this blog never has good news unless it is followed by much worse news”.

The bad news is that the venom includes, amongst other things, tetrodotoxin – which we last saw when this blog attempted to open a sushi restaurant. In fact, just like the pufferfish, it isn’t the octopus itself which produces the toxin, but rather bacteria living within its salivary ducts.

Tetrodotoxin blocks sodium channels, has no antidote and is around 1200 more times more powerful than cyanide, as it basically blocks information from travelling down the nervous system and reaching the muscles, resulting in paralysis. This includes the muscles used in breathing, which top doctors suggest are the worst muscles to have paralysed for any length of time. Other symptoms of being bitten include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, numbness, muscle weakness and hazy vision, sometimes leading to blindness. These symptoms, along with paralysis, are not good anywhere, but especially not when you’re swimming in the sea, according to those same top doctors.

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Not pictured: A good place to be suddenly unable to breath

This can happen within ten minutes of being bitten, and your only hope is to be hooked onto an artificial ventilator, so you can keep breathing whilst your body breaks down the poison.

 

Rather horribly, just like with pufferfish poisoning, you may be conscious – and indeed almost lucid – right up until the point of death.

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There are actually probably easier ways to meet attractive lifguards, for starters. 

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Hello?

Hello, is this Horrific Animals of the World?

Yes, it is – now no longer sponsored by Radio Moscow!

The Kremlin sponsored you?

They did. Apparently, we were not doing such a good job of undermining the decadent West.

Why would they ever think you even could do that?

Well it turned out that the translator we hired wasn’t very good, and there were several linguistic and cultural misunderstandings that, together, led to a lack of consensus regarding the partnership.

I see.

We also lied, like, loads, about more or less everything. So anyway, what’s your problem?

I’m feeling sick, and tired, and just generally ill.

You should probably speak to a medical professional. Or at the very least, Google your symptoms online.

I tried that. According to the Internet, I have hypercancer, AIDs, Ebola and bubonic plague, and hysterical pregnancy, which is strange because I’m a male. But the weird thing is, I only started feeling ill three days after I went for a swim.

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“It’s either a cough, or 90% of us will be dead within a week”

Well, you went and did exercise. No wonder you feel awful. Frankly, you only have yourself to blame for this. To be honest, it is probably just the fact that your flabby, weak, obese distortion  of a body is unused to even the slightest bit of exertion, due to a lifetime of overindulgence and laziness.

Thanks….I guess.

Or you could be infected with a brain eating amoeba.

I’m not flabby, I…wait, what? What on Earth is a brain eating amoeba?

An amoeba which eats brains.

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It can actually look like this, ‘this’ being ‘the face that hovers over you in that recurring nightmare’. (image via National Geographic). 

I had figured that out by myself.

It causes a disease caked Naegleria, or to give it its full name, Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAME) .  There were 37 known infections in the USA between 2006 and 2015, and under 200 throughout the history of the USA as of 2016. The initial symptoms are very similar to those you describe – headache, nausea, fever and vomiting. Later on, as the disease progresses, you may get a stiff neck, confusion, loss of concentration, loss of balance, trembling in your limbs, hallucinations, seizures, an urge to avoid bright lights and various other symptoms consistent with an ever increasing number of brain eating amoeba in your brain. Finally, as the damage to your brain becomes increasingly extensive, the victim enters a coma and then dies. Even with aggressive and prompt medical treatment, the fatality rate hovers around 95%.

How could I get this? I only went swimming!

Well, the Brain Eating Amoeba – or to give it its Latin name Naegleria fowleri – is found in warm waters, and, unlike most amoeba, can replicate happily at temperatures of up to 45 degrees centigrade, although it can’t grow in saltwater. Normally, it feeds on bacteria and other organic debris found in the lakes. Like a lot of amoeba, it can have multiple ‘forms’ – the Flagellate, Trophozoite and Cyst states. Cysts are formed when environmental conditions are tough – for example, when it is too hot, too cold, or there are too many harmful chemicals in the water, and basically allows the amoeba to ‘hibernate’ until conditions are better. The Flagellate stage has two flagella and can move around; but doesn’t feed or divide. (Presumably, this allows the organism to move to potentially more food-rich areas – Ed.) Finally, the Trophozoite stage is the feeding and reproducing stage. Both the Trophozoite and Flagellate stages can infect humans, although the Flagellates transform into Trophozoites once inside a person.

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The three stages – (left to right) Cyst, Trophozoites and Flagellates

The problem comes when infected water is taken up the nose – for example, by diving, swimming underwater, or using a nasal spray – although you can’t get it by drinking the water, nor from another infected person. Once it is in the nose, it migrates up the olfactory nerve, and into the olfactory bulbs of the brain.

Wait a sec…so the brain eating amoeba just happens to migrate to the one area of the body where you least want a brain eating amoeba?

Unfortunately, yes. If the amoeba just happened to start feeding on whatever cells were available, infected people would show signs of nasal damage – such as pain, nose bleeds, etc. The fact we don’t see this suggests that these cells are (more or less) untouched. Instead, the amoeba migrates through the sieve like ‘cribriform plate’ bone, and into the brain. This is likely because its ‘attracted’ to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which obviously is found at high levels in the brain.

Once there, it starts feeding on the brain cells by using a sucker like structure called an amoebostome to, basically, suck out the contents of various types of nerve cells, sometimes leaving a cytoskeleton (cell support structure) behind, as well as simply engulfing blood cells. This obviously causes massive tissue damage. Interestingly, though,  it seems a lot of the damage might be due to your body’s own inflammation response, trying to destroy the amoeba. Indeed, this study suggested that the inflammation response is the major cause of damage.

Bloody immune system…

You sound stressed.

Of course I’m stressed! There’s a brain eating amoeba in my brain! That’s the worst place to have a brain eating amoeba!

If you called it by its scientific name, Naegleria fowleri, you might feel a bit calmer about this whole thing. Try saying ‘Naegleria fowleri’ rather than ‘brain eating amoeba’.

That doesn’t help. Not even a little bit.

Well, I’m sorry we can’t help more.

You haven’t helped at all.

In fairness, we are called Horrific Animals of the World, and, technically speaking, Naegleria fowleri is not an animal. It is a member of the supergroup Excavata, which are all one celled eukaryotes. Eukaryotes, as I’m sure you know, consist of the plants, fungi, and animals, as well as other unicellular organisms, which used to be lumped together in the Kingdom Protozoa, until scientists realised that Protozoa wasn’t so much a group as a ‘place where you chucked all the eukaryotes that were not animals, plants or fungi’. In summary, your brain eating amoeba is not, actually, a problem of Horrific Animals of the World.

You spent quite a lot of time justifying why this isn’t your problem.

We’ve had lots of practice at justifying things.

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Such as taking money from a foreign power to undermine your country, completely failing to undermine your country, and forgetting Mum’s birthday. 

So what can I do to avoid this?

Well, if you’ve already got it, your best bet is to get swift medical treatment as soon as you can. But infection with this amoeba is stunningly rare; far more people will down whilst swimming than will come down with PAME. And it can’t survive in adequately chlorinated waters. Although, in a rather horrible twist of fate, it appears that human activities might increase levels of PAME. Firstly, ‘thermal pollution’ – dumping of warm (if clean) water into rivers and lakes potentially could kill off competitors of N. fowleri, whilst the amoeba can cope with the increased temperatures. With its competitors gone, its numbers could increase. Equally, global warming could mean, again, that water temperatures increase, extending the range of the amoeba.

So I guess the real moral of this story is…actually, there isn’t one. Sometimes Nature is just awful.

 

British politics is quite complicated.

 

Wait a minute, I hear you say, in an anguished tone. I came here to learn and be greatly unsettled by animals on an irregularly updated blog, hypothetical you continues. I get all of my political information from a couple of websites which happen to coincide with my prior views and so continually reinforce my own narrow worldview whilst rendering me increasingly incapable of understanding in a charitable manner the thoughts of others beyond my own echo chamber, you say, surprising me with your clarity of self reflection. I do not come to this blog to read about whatever unhinged beliefs you have adopted this week, you then shout, at the top of your lungs, causing me to retract my previous charitable impression of the ‘you’ in question.

 

And I quite understand. But the point I was trying to make, before the probably horribly inaccurate version of you I had created in my head started shouting, is that British Politics now contains spiders, and for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not being metaphorical. I am talking about a very literal spider which a literal senior government official literally keeps in his literal office.

 

 

The literal spider is Cronus, and his owner is the Government Chief Whip Gavin Williamson, whose job it is to make sure that Conservative MP’s vote the way the Prime Minister wants, a job which presumably becomes quite a bit easier once Mr Williamson locks the door and lets the tarantula out of his cage. The Chief Whip is quoted as saying that:  “…in the Whip’s office we have a proper pet. I’ve had Cronus since he was a spider-ling, so I have a very paternal sort of approach. It’s very much the same sort of love and care that I give to my spider as I give to all MPs.

 

 

Which sounds nice enough, except that he went onto say, presumably as his media liason team frantically starting mouthing ‘no’ at him,  “Cronus [It is at this point we should probably mention that Cronus, in Greek mythology, overthrew his father after castrating him and throwing him into the sea, before marrying his sister and eating the resulting children, before being in turn overthrown by Zeus, his latest child – Ed.]  is a perfect example of an incredibly clean, ruthless killer… absolutely fascinating to rear.” . Which is not exactly the sort of thing an elected politician usually says, unless they are being unrecorded and are about to drop the hero down a trapdoor to a grisly death after uncovering some sort of monstrous conspiracy.

 

 

[As a side-note, isn’t ‘Chief Whip’ a needlessly ominous title? It is like calling a politician Minister for Darkness, or Chairman of the Select Committee of the Howl Eternal, or Shadow Chancellor. Oh, that one’s a real title too. Ed.]

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The Shadow Chancellor, of course, appears in a dream shared by all that is blessedly forgotten upon wakening, intoning ancient prophecies of doom and that the recent economic figures show that the Government’s economic plan is failing the vast majority after every Budget, in a custom that dates back to 1832.

 

Now, what species Cronus is has not been exactly specified – from his pictures he looks like a Mexican Redknee Tarantula, Brachypelma smithi, a popular pet tarantula – but it is far from the most fearsome tarantula. Although no Tarantula can kill, although most have very painful bites, with some causing weeks of pain, swelling, and in some cases hallucinations, the tarantula most people know about, and mostly are desperate to avoid, is the Goliath Bird Eating Spider, Theraphosa blondi. Unless you’re in charge of maintaining the unity of your political party, in which case, well, this could well be the eight legged solution to at least some of your problems.

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“Hello, may I ask how you are planning to vote?” (Image from http://www.thesmallermajority.com)

The Goliath Bird Eating Spider is popularly called the largest spider on Earth, but the truth is a bit more complicated. It weighs in at 175 grams, making it the heaviest, and has a body up to 11.9 cm long, with its legspan reaching nearly 30 cm. The Giant Huntman Spider (Heteropoda maxima), however, recently discovered in 2001, has a slightly larger legspan, but is a lot more slightly built. Scientists are yet to determine which is objectively worse to find crawling up your trembling, naked body late at night. A good way to visualise the size of this spider is to imagine a spider that could quite easily cover most of your face, if that helps at all.

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Also, you don’t know that one of these isn’t hiding in your room and likes to crawl all over your face when you sleep. 

 

You could also imagine a spider which is big enough that you can hear its footsteps, or, in the words of one biologist, I could clearly hear its hard feet hitting the ground and dry leaves crumbling under its weight.. the Goliath birdeater is probably the only spider in the world that makes noise as it walks. Its feet have hardened tips and claws that produce a very distinct, clicking sound, not unlike that of a horse’s hooves hitting the ground” At first, he  said he mistook it for a small to medium size rodent.

 

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So like this, but the opposite in literally every way. 

Its size is probably down to its reduced metabolic rate, which in turn means a lower demand for oxygen. This is because, especially for arthropods, the bigger you are, the harder it is to get oxygen to every cell in your body.

 

[Its (one reason) why a human sized spider thankfully couldn’t be; its respiratory system is based around ‘book lungs’ which are basically ‘pages’ of tissue, inside the body, where oxygen is taken up and carbon dioxide released.  Scaled up to man-sized, a spider’s circulatory system probably couldn’t provide enough oxygen to tissues in the body -Ed.]

 

So one limiting factor on spider size is the oxygen demand; if you are bigger, you need more oxygen (since you have more cells in your body), and as seen above getting more oxygen becomes increasingly more difficult the bigger you get (because of the spider’s circulatory system). Because of its lower metabolic rate, the spider needs less oxygen than it otherwise would, and so the Bird Eating Spider can increase in size.

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To the relief of absolutely everyone (image via http://www.thesmallermajority.com)

 

Anyway, the Goliath Bird Eating Spider, or, as we will call it from now on, ‘Lord of All Spiders’, lives in the rainforests of northern South America, usually in swampy or marshy areas, and often hides away in a burrow during the day, because if the Lord of the Rings taught us anything other than not to overlook incredibly obvious solutions, it is that gigantic spiders like to live underground. The Lord of All Spiders is called ‘Bird Eating’ because it was originally observed devouring a honeybird. However, birds are not actually a common component of its diet, and it will happily eat almost anything it can catch and bite, such as small reptiles, small mammals, amphibians, earthworms, and larger insects. Rather than spin intricate webs, hide in a cleverly constructed ‘trapdoor’, or do as the pirate spiders do and pretend to be a caught prey animal, then ambush another spider which comes to investigate, the Lord of All Spiders simply chases its prey and bites it, with fangs up to one inch in length, capable of piercing a mouse’s skull or an egg shell (yes, they feed on bird eggs too). Although this bite is supposedly only as painful as a wasp sting and not really harmful to most humans, it is enough to kill smaller animals, which are then dragged back to the burrow of the Lord of All Spiders for leisurely consumption. The venom of the Lord of All Spiders actually includes digestive juices, which partially liquefies the prey, which is then sucked up.

 

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Unsure where this image comes from. As a reminder, those are the fangs of a spider. 

Females live quite a big longer (potentially up to three decades, as opposed to 3-6 years) than males. It seems, after reading guidance for keeping these animals in captivity,  that males actually have a shorter lifespan, often dying soon after their final moult. Of course, another reason could be that spiders often  practise sexual cannibalism, in which the female eats, or attempts to eat, the male either soon after, or during, mating (possibly a strategy on the male’s part; by providing the female with a meal, even if it is him, then his progeny have a better chance of surviving and mating themselves)

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So like potentially the 5th? 4th? worst date I’ve ever had

Like many tarantulas, the Lord of All Spiders has what are called ‘urticating setea’, which are basically bristles that can be extremely irritating if touched – and not only if touched. If the Lord of All Spiders feels threatened, it uses its legs to flicks these hairs from its abdomen at you. Although these mostly cause irritation and stinging to us, to a smaller animal they could prove fatal if inhaled, as they’d cause swelling inside the throat. Different tarantulas have different types of ultricating hairs. Fittingly, the Lord of All Spiders is thought to be perhaps the most irritating of all tarantulas in this regard. Firstly, it is covered with ‘Type III Setea” which, due to their morphology and their sheer length, are probably the most harmful to humans and other mammals. Secondly, its sheer size means it can support more setea. These setea are also used by the Lord of All Spiders to line its silk lined burrows, and discourage any intruders. Thus, like many tarantulas, it is probably a good idea to wear glasses if handling the Lord of All Spiders, to avoid getting these ‘hairs’ in your eyes, which seems to be an occupation hazard when keeping tarantulas. Additionally, if you wish to tempt fate even more and eat it (apparently, it tastes somewhat like shrimp) make sure you use a blowtorch to remove the hairs. Several diners in America, when eating another type of tarantula, forgot to do this and suffered irritation in their throats afterwards.

 

 

So, there you have it. Another reason to politely decline that cruise down the Amazon, a recipe tip should you need to eat a tarantula, and a way to reunite your fractured Party and take your case to the electorate.

Well, firstly, sorry.

I will admit it has been a while since I was last on here, but just to make it up to you, today I’ll be talking about an animal more awful than usual. I realise that apologies generally involve things like gifts, or letters, or actual apologies, rather than mentally scarring imagery and links to pictures that are so far beyond ‘Safe For Work’ that you’d probably get fired just for reading the link address out loud, but that’s just the way I roll.

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For serious apologies, I use my special apology costume. Its great for persuading people to move on, both metaphorically and very literally.

Although, weirdly, it might be that this animal is less horrific than originally thought. I do not know if this makes the apology more or less sincere.

Anyway, today we’ll be talking about a catfish, and if you didn’t know how a catfish could be horrific….well, read on.

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Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctat). Image via Wikimedia commons

Catfishes (properly called Siluriformes) are a large group of fish, originating in the late Jurassic, that incudes around 3000 species. Features of this group include ‘naked’ bodies (i.e. they don’t have any scales, although some do have armour plates, whilst others ‘breath’ through their skin) as well as barbels – whisker like features near the mouth, which are used to feel their way around – which is especially useful as many catfishes live in caves, are nocturnal feeders, or live in muddy, cloudy water (technically called ‘turbid’). Mostly, they live in freshwater, and some species are widely fished – either for sport, or for food (especially in some parts of the United States – so much so that Ronald Reagan declared that June 25 in the USA is ‘National Catfish day’, although sadly he gave no instructions as to how to celebrate it.)

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“I approve of the President’s strong stance against the Soviet Union.” (Channel Catfish, again from Wikimedia Commons)

But, why are they on this blog?

Well, it turns out catfishes, like – well, cats – have a dark side. Almost all catfish have spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins, and in some cases these can be covered with mucus and give a harmful – in some cases lethal – sting. The Malapteruridae can give a painful, though not lethal, electric shock. Furthermore, some species can grow to large sizes, and can attack humans. Bagarius yarrelli, for example, can grow up to 2 metres in length, and one is thought to have attacked and killed at least three people in India and Nepal after supposedly – and this is the creepiest part – developing a taste for human flesh after devouring the remains of corpses  cremated on the river.

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Bagarius yarrelli, from Animalplanet.com – an example of which decided to cut down the waiting time after developing a taste for human bodies.

But there is one that makes all of these pale into insignificance, and that is the Candiru fish, aka the Vampire Fish, aka the toothpick fish, aka Vandellia cirrhosa. They are members of a family of catfish called the Trichomycteridae, which also include fish that feed on mucus, carrion and scales, and a number of which live in caves. As the name suggests, Vandellia cirrhosa feeds on blood. Reaching a maximum length of around 17 cm, the fish appears silverly and semi-transparent and, truth be told, doesn’t look that horrific.

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This fish looks so innocent you would get in its windowless van. (Image via Futurism.com)

But, of course, it is not called the ‘Vampire’ fish for nothing. The fish feeds on the gills of other fish. By biting into the gills with its small, but rather sharp, teeth, it makes an incision into the artery and then just remains in place for no longer than two and a half minutes (and often much less) before letting go, letting the prey’s own blood pressure pump the blood straight into the Candiru. After that, it lets go, engorged with its blood meal that is visible through the fish’s skin.

And then, things get really horrible.

When the first explorers came to the Amazon, they heard, from the local tribes, a truly disturbing story. Men who urinated in the river attracted the Candiru somehow and then the Candiru (which remember, like all catfishes, has spines on its fins) would swim up the stream of urine and lodge itself – well, without being too specific, if you’re a man, imagine the worst place to have a spiny fish lodged in your body.

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If you’re female try driving a car, getting horribly lost, and not asking anyone for directions for sixteen hours despite the fact that, Christ, Tim, we’re five hours late already and just pull over, already, no, you don’t…and then imagine the worst place to have a fish stuck in you. 

The fish, of course, would then die and start to rot, somehow making ‘having a spiny blood drinking fish stuck in your penis/other orifice’ even worse. According to legend, the only ‘cure’ was either amputation or, in some cases, a mixture of special herbs that would dissolve the fish, although unless these herbs combined made a strongly caustic cleaner, I can’t see that working. That said, ingesting a strongly caustic substance would probably also kill you, although by that stage that would probably not be a huge disadvantage.

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“If it can unblock a drain, it can unblock me”

This story has been repeated more or less as gospel truth for around a century, before scientists, in a rare moment of lessening rather than increasing the horror of the natural world, thought that the stories were incredibly exaggerated, if not made up entirely. Firstly, experiments showed that Caniduru were not actually attracted to urea, which was the theory as to why they attracted humans. Secondly, a few moments thought would suggest that it is more or less physically impossible for a fish to try and swim up a stream of urine. (There’s a third objection too, which is even if the fish managed to lodge itself in you, it would certainly die – but this isn’t actually an objection, given that it could be that the fish just made a horrible mistake).

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“I am as upset about this as you are” – image from seriouslyfish.com

So its all just a horrible urban legend, right?

Well, not quite.

Whilst it certainly isn’t something that happens a lot (some people claim that the fish is the world’s only vertebrate parasite on humans, which is only true if you really stretch the definitions) there is, supposedly, one case of it happening to a man swimming in the water.  In 1997, an unnamed patient in Manaus, Amazonia, Brazil was operated on by Doctor Samad, who claimed to have removed a Caniduru from a patient’s urethra and had, thoughtfully, taken pictures, which can be viewed here if you are male and have no intention of sleeping, like, ever again. The patient, in addition to suffering from a-spiny-fish-where-you-really-don’t-want-a-spiny-fishitus, also suffered from catastrophic urine retention and, some reports suggest, a damaged scrotum as the fish had started to chew its way out.

However, some parts of this story, perhaps thankfully, appear not to be true. The recovered specimen had all its spines intact (despite Samad claiming that he had to snip them off to remove the fish) and it also seemed much too big to have – err-  fitted in, to put it in the best possible terms. Additionally, the patient claimed that the fish had sum up the stream of urine, whilst the Doctor claimed that the fish was attracted to urea – which, as discussed above, are both probably entirely untrue.

But, despite that, the guy who investigated the case is, apparently, ‘not writing the case off’, and says that although deeply unlikely, it is not impossible that someone immersed in the water could be attacked by the Caniduru.

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“Visit the Mighty Amazon, where it is somewhat unlikely that you will be attacked by a Caniduru.”

Its been some while since I posted an article on parasitic nematode worms. So, in response to almost no demand, here’s another article, on another, equally if not more so nasty, nematode worm which can, quite easily, turn your life into hell.

Onchocerca volvulus is possibly one of the more unpleasant worms out there. Its a species found in the Nematode phyla, that group of worms that live almost anywhere. Unfortunately, where O. volvulus prefers to live is inside people.

Like many parasites, the life cycle of this worm takes several stages. The bite of (usually) a fly found in the Simuliidae order of flies transmits the larvae to the host. The larvae then burrow through the flesh (which is a term which has never, ever been heard in a good context) and mature into adults into the subcutaneous tissue. A thick, collagen-rich nodule then forms around the adults, and, usually, the adults themselves do not cause much trouble, even though they can live beneath the skin for up to fifteen years, which top experts agree is fifteen years too long for a parasitic worm to be living underneath your skin. (Weirdly, I’ve been unable, to find any evidence on what the worms live on whilst living in your body; but presumably they feed on you in some way.)

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To be honest, I’m actually perhaps not knowing exactly how it feeds. (Image via Wikimedia)

The problem comes when the worms reproduce. The males wriggle through the subcutaneous tissue until they encounter one of the larger females. They mate, and then the female can produce up to 3000 larvae (technically microfilariae ) per day. (The number varies a lot depending on which source you look at, and whether they are counting total produced or total released into the host. Ed.) And, to spread to a new host, these larvae must be taken up when the Black Fly takes another blood meal. So they migrate upward, and a few of them will be taken up by the Black Fly when it next bites. They will then mature into the second larval form whilst in the fly’s gut, and then, when the fly bites another human, the larvae enter the bloodstream and the whole appalling cycle begins again.

The problem comes when the larvae don’t get taken up – and as each female can be producing 3000 microfilariae a day, there can be quite a few which are not taken up. The larvae live for just under two years, and then they die. And, ironically enough, its only when they die that the infected person’s problems really start. Similar to a really severe allergic reaction, the host’s own immune system swings into action as it detects the foreign objects within the body. What drives the severity of symptoms seems to be a) the ‘strain’ of O. volvulus you’re infected with (the ‘Savannah’ strain is, apparently, the most virulent one) and b) the characteristics of your own immune system, where a stronger immune system response leads to worsening symptoms. Weirdly, the amount of parasites inside you doesn’t appear to have much much of an effect – indeed, many people who are worst affected actually have low parasite loads compared with people with less severe symptoms. Possibly, an immune system which reacts more strongly to the parasite will kill off more of them…leading to more dead microfilariae and thus exasperating the immune response.

(There’s actually quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Wolbachia, one of the stranger symbiotic bacteria out there, doing everything from feminising male arthropod offspring to straight up killing them, is also involved. It appears that this bacteria is present in all worms, at all stages of the life cycle, and worms that have had these symbionts remove reproduce less and cause a lower immune system response inside humans. Additionally, the Savannah strain appears to have higher levels of Wolbachia in it, which could explain why this strain of the disease is more severe and more likely to lead to blindness. Ed.)

So what are these symptoms? Well, they vary considerably. Some people don’t get anything.

And then again, some people do. Itching is common; but the word ‘itching’ doesn’t really give the right impression. Think of it more as an overall burning feeling; which isn’t relieved no matter what you do, caused by your own body’s reaction to dead nematode larvae inside you. Its so bad that, frequently, people can’t get to sleep and children’s schooling is ruined as they simply can’t concentrate. It drives people to some pretty desperate measures.

Plantation workers heat up machetes until they glow red hot and press them against their bodies, whilst other people have tried pouring boiling water over themselves to get some relief. Others end up scratching themselves so badly they they bleed and become vulnerable to infection; or smash clay pots and scratch themselves with the shards. Reportedly, some people have even committed suicide over the constant itching.

This would be rather nightmarish on its own, but sadly the itching is only scratching the surface (really dude? REALLY? Ed.) of it. Depending on the severity, you can acquire a wide range of unpleasant skin diseases. These range from slight swellings of the skin, to loss or gain of pigmentation (sometimes called leopard skin), skin roughness and crustiness (also sometimes called ‘lizard skin’), the skin loosing elasticity and hanging loose from the body, leading to comparisons with cigarette or tissue paper, as well as the condition ‘hanging groin’, which frankly I do not want to think about too closely. Whilst this is certainly unpleasant on its own, it also leaves you more vulnerable to other infections, as well as, of course, leading to all the social problems which come with having a severe skin deformity.

Oh, and you can also go blind.

Yes, I probably should have started with that.

You see, the larvae are not just present in the skin – they can also migrate into the eyeball, because having worms in just your skin isn’t horrible enough, apparently. Once there, they can die, resulting in inflammation. Initially, this is temporary, but as time goes on, this inflammation leads to a loss of vision, and finally, complete and irreversible blindness. Currently, some thirty five million people are thought to be infected, and 300,000 have been permanently blinded by the disease, with another 500,000 suffering some visual impairment.

O. volvulus is mostly found in Sub-Saharan Africa, making it easily the regions 429th most pressing issue. Due to other, even worse issues facing many countries in that area, getting rid of it is not exactly easy.

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Many of the countries featured here also feature on the Foreign Office list of countries it suggests you do not travel to. 

 

Currently, the most successful treatment is Ivermectin, which doesn’t kill the adults but does cause them to stop releasing larvae, as well as actually killing the larvae themselves. In a slightly heartwarming revelation, because by this point in the article you probably need one, this drug is provided free by Merck, one of the world’s largest drugs companies.

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Now, I appreciate the title is alarmist.

So let me be clear.

The creature we’re going to talk about today could be a perfectly normal slug. Or, alternatively, it could be some horror from a dark, festering corner of the Universe, sent to punish Man for his sins.

There is no explicit evidence that these coldly intelligent and utterly foul organisms, lacking all emotions save for hate, seeped down from the stars and are now working to scour humanity from the globe in a storm of blood and horror, before raising black and hideous temples to their forsaken and unknowable Gods. It would be speculation, not fact, to state that these organisms have already infiltrated our society, and are working, even as you read these very words, to not just destroy but expunge everything that we hold dear, and keep us alive only so that we might experience the utter despair of seeing our own precious world usurped by these loathsome creatures and knowing that all resistance is fruitless. Some scientists might even say there is currently not enough information to decide, one way or the other, whether these are simple slugs or, instead, manifestations in our reality of ancient and loathsome minds, harking from some malignant orb shrouded in misery and rotting with the forbidden relics of long dead yet still conscious alien Gods, the mere names of which would send any mortal man fleeing into the sanctuary of madness.

 

So, let’s review the evidence, for ourselves…before it is too late.

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Hopefully, lightning flashed just as you read those words. (Image from blogs.murdoch.edu.au)

Slugs, as you might know, are gastropods, which themselves are found within the phylum mollusca. Molluscs are, morphologically, one of the most diverse phyla, and include everything from slugs and snails, to squid, octopods [NOT Octopi – Ed.] and chitons.

Gastropods themselves consist of over 60,000 species, and are found in both marine and terrestrial environments. (We’ve already covered the lethally poisonous cone snails). The ghost slug, by contrast, is wholly terrestrial.

Both, however, are slightly odd, in that they are both carnivorous.

 

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And neither paritucarly look like it, either. (Image via Markgtelfer.co.uk)

The Ghost Slug’s formal name is Selenochlamys ysbryda and is one of only two animals in its genus, the other being S. pallida. ‘Ysbryda‘ is, in fact, slightly appropriate, as it is Welsh for ‘ghost’ – which, considering its nocturnal habit and its ghostly white colour, is somewhat appropriate. Additionally, it was only formally described in 2008 by biologists. Previously, one had been caught in 2003, but the discovers failed to fully recognise the significance of their find and, thinking it was a juvenile, attempted to raise it to maturity until, in their own words “It died two months later [and] the gut and gonad had everted through the anus, discouraging us from further investigation”, which is frankly a good reason to stop investigating something. This specimen was found in an actual, abandoned graveyard. The authors did not specify whether they found evidence of an unholy ritual performed by deluded cultists unaware of the true nature of what they were calling up.

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The exact type of slug you’d expect to see in a graveyard. (Image from BBC)

Eyeless, little is actually known about these slugs, because they are subterranean and so their appearances on the surface might be a rather rare occurrence, so for all you know there could be millions of them burrowing underneath your house at this very moment.

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Logically, if anything, it should make an animal less creepy. But no eyes actually just makes it worse. (Image from museumwales.ac.uk) 

What we do know is that they are predators. Their radula (a ribbon like structure, lined with ‘teeth’, found in most molluscs and functioning as a combination of tongue and tooth) are much sharper than those of herbivorous slugs, enabling them to quickly eat earthworms, rapidly rasping away at their flesh. So far as I can tell, little is known of how they reproduce. (Most slugs are hermaphrodites, and during mating both slugs will fertilise the other. If you wish to learn more about slug reproduction – and really, who am I to judge? – just remember it does involve phrases like ‘intertwined penises’ and ‘external sperm transfer’ and, in some slugs, such as the banana slug, ‘apophallation’ – otherwise known as ‘biting off the penis because it got stuck in the other slug’.)

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“I hate my job” – the NSA agent who monitors this blog. (Image from Infinitespider.com)

Despite being found in Wales, its thought that the species originated in the Crimea, as several specimens have been found there. Additionally, specimens of S. pallida are found in the relatively nearby Caucasus mountains, suggesting that the slugs originated/fell to Earth here and were then introduced to Wales, either accidentally or as part as some malevolent plan by a sinister aristocrat who has no idea of the true nature of his paymasters. Given our admittedly highly prejudiced lack of knowledge about geography, we do feel that, if anything alien is to arrive on Earth, arriving in the Caucasus mountains, rather than, say, Blackpool, does show a sense of the theatrical we can admire.

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In fairness, even  abominations have standards

So that’s it. Christmas is over for another year. I hope you all go the presents you wanted, there were no family arguments, and that, depending on exactly which Christmas traditions you follow, the Offering to the Monolith went smoothly and you did not forget any chants.

 

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Seriously, for your sake, I hope you did not forget. The Monolith is not forgiving. 

Now, the animal we’ll be discussing this time is a deep sea dwelling worm that feeds on the rotting bones of once majestic whales. The link to Christmas is, I think, pretty obvious.

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If you can see the link between Christmas and bone eating worms, you should probably be on some kind of medication. 

Osedax worms were only discovered in 2002 as part of science’s commitment to continually probe the dark corners of the world and see that which should not be seen. Consisting of eleven described species, including the wonderfully named Osedax mucofloris (which roughly translates from the Greek and Latin to ‘snot flower bone eater’ or ‘bone eating snot flower’) the Osedax worms live on whale fall.

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The pinkish tentacles are the gills, and the green bits are the bacteria filled ‘roots’ of the worm that enter the bone. The screaming skull is, of course, simply a trapped damned spirit. (Image from mbari.org)

‘Whale fall’ is exactly what is sounds like. The seabed, assuming limited light reaches it and it is far from shore, is often nutrient and energy limited (aside from some unusual occurrences like the ecosystems found around hydrothermal vents). Far from shore, on the seabed, all of the nutrients and energy come, ultimately, from above, in the form of either prey or organic remains slowly sinking – what is called ‘marine snow’, as presumably ‘the soft fall of dead matter’, whilst more accurate, isn’t quite as catchy. Therefore, generally life on the seabed is rather less biodiverse than, for example, life on the shoreline, in a shallow seabed, or a coral reef. There simply are not enough resources available to support large, complex ecosystems.

This all changes when a whale dies. Whales, as you hopefully know, are big animals, and so full of nutrients and energy. A bit like an oasis in a desert, a dead whale provides enough resources to allow a thriving community to develop, feeding off the whale. Slightly unlike an oasis, the vast majority of these organisms are horrifying.

Osedax is no exception. It feeds on the whale bone, and pictures of dead whale carcasses show a writhing mass of red, 1 cm long worms covering them, which somehow makes a gigantic, rotting skeleton at the bottom of the abyss worse. They don’t have any eyes – they don’t need them – and also they have no mouths. Instead, they absorb a slurry of lipids and nutrients, obtained as bacteria break down the whale bones. The worms help with this by boring into the bones and creating a network of miniature tunnels. They don’t do this with teeth, though – instead, the secrete acids strong enough to melt through bone. Like many other polychaete worms, they have large, colourful feathery plumes which act as gills.

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Image from chess.myspecies.info. Worms on a whale bone.

Most scientists think eleven species in an understatement – these worms are found at a range of depths, from twenty five to thirty thousand metres and often occupy quite broad ranges in depths – O. roseus, for example, has a depth range of at least twelve hundred metres, as well as being found across the world. At any one time, there are thought to be nearly seven hundred thousand whale carcasses on the seabed – so despite the seabed being a fairly large place, there are enough carcasses to support large populations of Osedax worms.

Since Osedax worms are prolific breeders (a female O. rubiplumus can produce over three hundred eggs a day) the Osedax spread from carcass to carcass by simply producing huge numbers of offspring. These larvae float through the water and can survive for around two weeks, feeding from a small yolk sac attached to their bodies. The vast majority will never find a new home, but a lucky one may encounter another whale bone and start the cycle all over again. Curiously, the sex of Osedax worms does not seem to be determined at birth. The males are generally much smaller than the females and live inside the musuc tube that surrounds the female worm – each female might support several hundred males. Its thought that larvae which land on another Osedax worm (of the same species) become males. The one exception to this might be O. priapus, which has males and females of the same size. Since the males aren’t conveniently attached to the females they can extent to up to ten times their normal length to find (or, as this paper put it rather wonderfully, ‘roam across the bone’) and mate with a female.

And it isn’t just dead whales they feed on. Boring by Osedax worms cause readily identifiable patterns in bones. Such patterns have been seen in plesiosaur fossils dating back over 100 million years, to the early Cretaceous period. Molecular evidence suggests that these worms either originated around 40-45 million years ago, or much earlier, possibly in the late Jurassic or early Cretaceous*. After the KT mass extinction 65 million years ago, its thought these worms subsisted on giant turtles, until the whales and other cetaeans evolved and spread throughout the oceans, dramatically expanding the food supply of the Osedax worms and allowing them to speciate. They can also survive on bird bones and, in an experiment, they thrived on the bones of a deer, so it appears they aren’t too fussy.

 

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So long as its bone, they’re happy. (Image from deepseanews.com)

 

In theory, they’d be perfectly happy munching away at the bones of, say, a reindeer, that fell out of the sky and into the middle of the ocean one December night…

And there you have it. There is, indeed, a link between a bone eating snot flower at the bottom of the ocean, and Christmas.

 

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Truly, it is a Christmas miracle. 

*If you’re wondering why there’s such a gap between these estimates, its almost certain there was a radiation of Osedax species around 40 million years ago, which could have made determining the age of this species harder.