Archive for November, 2012

I’m always unsure of when to actually start thinking about Christmas.  Back on the remote, Scottish island where I grew up, it was rather easy; the festive season started when we captured the  first Outsider for the Solstice Offering. Now, it is rather more tricky, so, in a pathetic bid to remain relevant, this blog will have a Christmassy flavour. And by ‘flavour’, I  mean ‘incredibly tenuous connection purely to get some more site traffic’. Because this week it’s all about botflies, which I think poses an interesting, if alarming, glimpse into how my mind makes connections.

There are several species of botflies, and they all have very similar life cycles: to wit, they lay their eggs inside the living flesh of much larger mammals. The actual details vary quite a bit from species to species, for nature is always bountiful with the horror she provides. The term ‘botfly’ actually covers any member of the  Oestridae family. These flies are found all over the place; from the icy tundras of Norway to the jungles of South America.

So why the hell is this a ‘Christmassy’ blog post? Well, one of the many, many, many species of animals parasitized by botflies are reindeer.

Yes, that’s it. That’s the entire linkage to Christmas, right there.

Indeed, the larvae start off in the nose after been placed there by the adult female, and then wriggle down to the base of the throat where they overwinter ( http://www.natur.gl/en/birds-and-mammals/terrestrial-mammals/caribou-reindeer/ ); during the warmer periods in the Artic, they are sneezed out onto the ground, where they quickly pupate, reach maturity and reproduce before dying. Most accounts sug

gest that actual problems are rather rare in wild populations (since reindeer fairly obviously have avoidance mechanisms) but in farmed populations significant mortality can occur. These problems are the ones you would expect from having many, many wriggly horrors in your nasal passages – irritation, damage to the throat, dislodged maggots falling into the lungs, and perhaps most horrifyingly, death by suffocation. In case your eyes skipped over that bit in a futile attempt to prevent you from scarring your mind forever, that means that heavy infections can mean that the reindeer’s airways are so chocked with maggots that it cannot breath (http://www.whatsthatbug.com/2009/12/13/nasal-bot-fly-maggots-in-deer/) [Seriously, do not click on that link. Ed.]

Botflies in Rudolph's throat

“Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, had lots of very slimy maggots…”
[Yup, post an equally soul scarring photograph. Oh, why do I even bother? Ed.] (Pic credit: http://www.natur.gl/en/birds-and-mammals/terrestrial-mammals/caribou-reindeer/)

In cattle and horses, some species imply migrate through the digestive tract, sometimes after burrowing into the tongue before starting on a roller-coaster of a journey through the animal’s digestive tract; they end up been excreted out of the animal, where, again they mate and reproduce in a hurry (presumably before they realise just how awful they are). Again, serious health problems can result by heavy infections causing blockages, which I think is possibly the best way one can say “Suzie, your little pony is dying because there are masses of hell-maggots crawling through his guts”. (http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/livestock/horse_bot_fly.htm).

The reason I’ve mentioned all the above is to make you feel slightly better about the human botfly, the wonderfully named Dermatobia hominis. This fly uses a rather sneaky trick, for rather than laying the eggs herself, the fly kidnaps another bug, usually a bloodsucker, and attaches eggs to that insect. When that insect lands on a person, the larvae hatch and burrow into the person; usually using the minor wound their carrier caused. They then reside in the host for 4-14 weeks before emerging and carrying on their unholy life cycle (Garvin and Singh 2007). These flies are found in South and Central America, and keen readers will notice this overlaps with the area that the Wandering Spider lives. This is, quite surprisingly, not a fact noted on the Brazilian Tourist Board website. The larvae can be extremely painful, one report comparing it to hot needles inside the skin. There are a variety of ways for expelling it, but one needs to be careful not to leave any remnant of the maggot behind, otherwise serious infection can result. It should also be noted that, in some rare cases, the maggot burrows into the genitalia. If that happens to you, then depending on what religion you have you were either Pol Pot in a previous life, or God really, really hates you. Still, it could be worse. Botflies adapted to live on other species can find their way into humans as well. For example, the reindeer parasitizing botfly can expel its larvae into a human eye (http://www.thelocal.se/33578/20110504/), again, curiously unmentioned on the Swedish Board of Tourism Website . The only thing more nightmarish is  if it somehow ended up in your brain, but surely…

Proof Positive that there is no loving God

In a recent survey, 45% of our readers said the worst place to have a flesh eating maggot was inside the brain, 20% said inside the genitals, 20% said inside the eye and 15% were ‘desperate for any kind of physical contact whatsoever’. (Pic. Credit. http://scienceblogs.com/retrospectacle/2008/01/26/of-the-5-most-horrifying-insec/)

Yes, tragically, sometimes the larvae ends up inside the human brain, where it obviously causes severe damage and frequently death. The only consolation is that such events are, thankfully, very very rare (and, amazingly, in some cases the victim makes a full recovery http://thejns.org/doi/pdf/10.3171/jns.1989.71.6.0929)

Well, we hope you enjoyed our Christmas special! Tune in next week for when I unveil our Easter special, featuring Myxomatosis in rabbits!

 

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Generally, biologists tend to get pretty annoyed when a species goes extinct. It doesn’t matter if its a Panda, an Emperor Penguin, or some ant living under leaves in Uzbekistan which no one has ever heard of before. Whatever the animal, there is bound to be, somewhere, someone who cares about it.

Which means that the Guinea Worm, or to give it its full name Dracunculus medinensis, is so utterly horrific that really, no one seems that bothered about the fact that soon it will have gone extinct, except for people on a website called SavetheGuineaWorm.com, which is either a) a spoof or b), like everything on the Internet, run solely by mad people. And there’s a reason why it has attracted so little sympathy. Even its name indicates that it unpleasant. The first thing you probably thought of when you saw it is that it looks like ‘Dracula’, and so is a parasite, which is half right. It is actually apparantly derived from the Latin phrase ‘affliction with little Dragons’ (Barry 2007) which means that it is a parasite that causes agonising pain. (For those of you wondering why ‘Dracula’ and ‘Draco’ (Latin for ‘dragon’) sound the same (you seriously need to get a life if you are) , its because the original Dracula was a member of the Order of the Dragon, possibly the best name of anything, ever,  formed to protect Eastern Europe from the Turks).

Order of the Dragon

For an Order with such a cool name, this does look like it was designed by a nine year old who just thought of a cool name for his gang. But frankly, we’d rather go with any picture, no matter how poorly drawn, than actually show you a guinea worm. (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

So anyway, ignoring the anecdotes about a tyrant so horrific he inspired the most influential monster ever, and getting back to something truly horrible, we have the Guinea worm, which has been around so long it was thought to have inspired the  asklepian, the international ‘symbol’ of healing. (It nowadays features a snake, but could date from a time when the best time to extract the worm was to twist it out using a stick). 

This worm, in its larval form, lives in dirty water, swimming around, presumably thinking purely Evil thoughts. These larvae infect copepods, tiny water fleas, which are otherwise pretty much harmless. Sooner or later, a hapless human will drink this water, and swallow a number of these infected water fleas. And this is where things move away from ‘mildly sick making’ to a string of stuttering obscenities.

Inside the stomach is pretty strong hydrochloric acid, which dissolves away the flea but leaves the young worm (wormling ?) unharmed. So basically, this worm is so tough it can survive being immersed in acid, which dissolves its original host away to nothing, which we have to admit is kind of badass as well as utterly terrifying. The worm then finds a nice warm body cavity, mates, and if its a female lays its eggs, whilst it continues to grow, sometimes reaching lengths of up to sixty centimeters  (If you are wondering what happened to the males, they die and get absorbed by the female; meaning misogyny is a common but short lived attitude along Guinea Worm males).

So, nothing much happens for about a year (Barry 2007), until the female(s) inside the host (yes, if you are really, really, really unlucky you can have as many as forty of them inside you) get restive; as this point they may be over two feet long and be as thick as a ‘spaghetti strand’ according to one account, presumably written by a rather hungry student. They want their young to experience the big, wide world, and the way to do that is to get back into the water. And the way to do that is to make humans go into the water. And, because nature hates us, it designed a method that is both effective and terrifically cruel. Like most of nature, really.

They  stimulate a ‘burning’ sensation in the affected parts of the body. Because, you see, these worms have somehow evolved the ability to make humans feel pain; because that makes humans want to dunk the affected body part in water. Basically, the worm is using an admittedly very crude form of mind control, ‘knowing’ that burning pain makes people want to go into water to cool it down. An almost brainless invertebrate is manipulating the planet’s apex species into doing exactly what it wants via torturing it, which is probably enough to utterly refute he existence of a loving God on its own. The pain is said to be agonizing  and can effectively cripple people for months on end.  The eggs are released into the water, and the whole horrible cycle starts again. Oh, and if you thought you could just pull the worm out, you can’t, because otherwise it will snap and its body, in a last, petty act of revenge, will promptly start to putrefy inside you.

There is some good news however. According to the Carter Centre, in 1986 there were around 3,500,000 cases of this disease. By 2011 there were just over a  thousand; and that number represented a massive decline even from 2010. The parasite NEEDS a human host to complete its life-cycle, and so, like smallpox, it can’t really hide in the environment, waiting to re-emerge. Although the target to utterly eradicate the disease by 2009 was missed (http://www.who.int/wer/2010/wer8519.pdf), it seems likely it’ll be accomplished soon. And best of all, a lot of the measures used to combat the worm are far from expensive, and often result in other benefits as well – for example, establishing clean water supplies. Ironically enough, the WHO, which is in charge of eliminating things like this nematode, has as its emblem the asklepian. Which you have to admit is irony. Or karma. Or – something, at any rate.  (And we have to admit we only have the vaguest idea of what ‘irony’, ‘karma’ or anything else actually means).

And you thought there could never be a feel-good story about humanity wiping out an entire species…

WHO Flag

The flag of the WHO basically harks back to a time when the best way to extract parasitic worms from people was to twist them out using small sticks. Frankly, it makes us doubt their medical credentials (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mind control

Posted: November 4, 2012 in Random
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Whenever I was feeling put-upon or unlucky, my parents would always say “there’s someone worse off than you”. But even the mention of my brother rarely did the trick. In all honestly, there are lots of organisms worse off than you. A starving African child, press ganged into an army run by a religious nutcase. A prostitute, addicted to crack cocaine. The chimpanzees I force to write this blog; kept in line with alcohol and frequent electric shocks (Ed. This is a joke. We love animals, and thus only use the most desperate interns to write this thing)

But however bad you feel, at least you’re not, for example, been mind controlled by a virulent parasite into harming yourself in order to protect your progeny. But that happens all the time in nature. Some hairworms, for example, dwell inside grasshoppers – until the time comes for them to enter the next stage in their life cycle. This they do via the extremely creepy mechanism of manipulating the grasshopper into jumping into an aquatic body, where the worm wriggles out of the grasshopper’s corpse and goes in search of some hot, hot hairworm sex (FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT GOOGLE THAT. Ed.) The liver fluke causes ants to walk up grass stems, where a cow will eat the ant along with the grass, allowing the fluke to enter the body of the cow. Toxoplasma gondi makes rats unafraid of cats; but not because they want to increase the self esteem of rodents. Rather, it is because they can only breed inside a cat, and so by getting the rodent eaten, the protozoa (not really an animal, but we’ll let it pass. Ed.) can breed. The latter is also common in humans, and has been implicated in severe schizophrenia; although a study of some females revealed it might also increase intelligence, meaning that you can scream witty obscenities about the Jews at frightened children as you chase them down for calling you ‘Crazy cat lady’.

Even the fungi have got in on the act (FFS, that is definitely not an animal. Ed.) with the fungus Entomophthora muscae growing into a fly, digesting its body from the freaking inside out, and then growing into the brain, forcing the fly to climb upwards, onto a stalk. Why does it do this? Well, because from this high vantage point the fungal spores can spread far wider, spreading this disease elsewhere. It’s just a good thing that fhhasifh THE FUNGUS IS THE ONE TRUE LORDSAFHAGHSAHASH49TUFHAF ALL HAIL OUR FUNGAL OVERLORDS there isn’t a variety that can infect mammals.

Parasitic wasps are surprisingly common in nature, and reproduce by basically stinging their host, paralyzing it, and then laying their eggs nearby (or sometimes in the host itself). The larvae then hatch out, and eat into the host while it is still alive; sometimes carefully selecting the time and order in which they eat organs, so as to keep their meal alive for as long as possible. This is, of course, rather disturbing to anyone unacquainted with the fantastic horror that is reproduction (speak for yourself. Ed.) but there are some animals that combines both mind control and been eaten alive by hordes of ravenous larvae.

If Darwin said “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillarswhen talking about normal parasitic wasps, then when faced with these animals he would probably have said “I cannot persuade myself that I have not embarked upon an exceedingly bad acid trip; because, for real, these parasitoids are like eighteen different kinds of fucked up shit. Fuck.

Firstly, there is Glyptapanteles, a genus of parasitic wasps that do the usual, unspeakable horror thing of  lying its eggs inside a host (potentially as many as 80) – in this case a caterpillar of Thyrinteina leucocerae . After a while, the larvae, as Grosman et al 2008 put it, ‘egress’ (i.e. eat their way out) of the caterpillar and start spinning their cocoons. And this is where things get weird. The caterpillar is still alive, but it stops moving and eating, remaining near to the larvae which have just been developing inside of it. Equally, whenever a potential predator approaches, it swings its head, which apparently deters around 60% of predators (presumably, such predators are wimps).

Let’s run that again. As the larvae which recently ate their way out of its body  develop nearby, the caterpillar can only stay on one place, and deter the predators from eating those same larvae. There’s a B movie in that sentence alone.

Thought that was bad? Try Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga, a parasitic wasp from the Ichneumonidae family. This preys upon a species of spider. The adult stings the spider into temporary paralysis and lays a single egg. This then hatches, and it starts to feed on the spiders haemolymph as the spider recovers and goes around doing normal, spidery things. Then, one day, the parasite decides that time is up. It molts  kills, and drains the spider completely – but not before inducing the spider to spin a cocoon web. When the spider is devoured the parasite then uses this web to support its own cocoon. As the person who noticed this, Eberhard (2000) noted, this is in a league of its own; rather than simply making the host move in a certain way, the parasite makes the spider spin a completely new kind of web. Even if the parasite is removed, the spider will still spin this web – the chemical control the parasite uses is so strong the spider simply cannot resist spinning for the very parasite that will soon kill it. It’s like some alien parasite forcing a  human to look after it, all the while sucking his blood and plotting to kill him within the next day. Why this is not a movie escapes me.

And you thought looking after your baby cousins was bad.

A friend of mine has arachnophobia, and so of course I spend lots and lots of time looking up obscure but unpleasant spiders of the world to post to her Facebook page. Because I care (and because you’re a dangerous maniac. Ed.)

Anyway, one of my best ever posts was about the Brazilian Wandering Spider, and by the end of this I hope you will understand why. If you think it is because it is the one species of spider on the planet that is not the incarnation of all that is unholy on eight legs, you are incredibly naive, and probably emailing your bank account details to a prince in Nigeria in response to his ‘totally legit bank survey’ email as we speak. (Protip: do not expect to ever see that $456,000,000,000 he is offering. Banks have never simply given money to someone they know nothing about).

No, the reason why the Brazilian Wandering was a good choice is because, quite simply, it is Evil. And here’s why.

Firstly, the Greek name of the genera, Phoneutria, means murderess in Greek, which straight off the bat is hardly a good sign. As a rule, scientists are sober (please, we’ve all seen the pictures. Ed.) and collected people, so if they name something murderess , you know it is going to be bad. Though I admit they are been a bit callous by only warning people about this spider in Greek, but then frankly if you can’t speak Greek I guess you really don’t deserve to know which spiders can kill you horribly. The genus comprises eight species, which top specialists say is nine species too many, and can be as large as five inches across.

Anyhow, this spider has perhaps the most toxic venom of any spider studied so far. For example you need 110 μg (micrograms)  of poison injected into the veins of a 20g mouse to kill it, assuming that poison came from a Black Widow spider.Considering that a microgram is one millionth of a gram, that’s not a lot of poison. Well, the Wandering Spider venom can kill the same mouse using only 6 μg.

Six. Millionths. Of. A. Gram.

So, how does this poison work? It contains several components, the most lethal being the neurotoxin PhTx3. This works by, basically, ‘blocking’ synapses, the connections between nerves. It does this by blocking calcium channels, which stops the release of neurotransmitters (chemicals that diffuse across synapses) . Basically, it takes a great big pair of pliers to the wiring of your body, leading to a loss of muscle control, difficulty breathing, paralysis and eventual death. In addition, the venom also causes intense pain around the site of the wound. Finally, to add insult to injury, it causes priapism – or, in common parlance, an errection that lasts for four hours or more. Before anyone gets any ideas and rushes off to the Brazilian rain forest to solve their long running relationship problems, it should be noted that this is a) intensely painful, b) is classified as a medical emergency, c) can lead to impotence and d), most alarmingly, is often best treated by basically cutting into the penis and letting the blood out. Yet more proof, as if any were needed, that this spider is indeed the distillation of pure Evil. Not only will it kill you, but kill you in a way that will amuse the more mentally backward members of society.

But don’t worry, this spider is only found in Brazil. Obviously, this is bad news for the Brazilians, especially given that the spider likes to crawl into dark, quiet spaces. Like, you know, the insides of clothes, bed sheets, boots, cupboards and…well, you get the idea. Imagine every single corner of your home may harbour a spider, able to kill you and humiliate your corpse, and then marvel at the courage of the Brazilian people for not emigrating to, literally, anywhere else.

But then again, perhaps they know that there is no escape. For example, in 2005 one hitched a ride on some bananas and ended up in England, where it bit a man who was unloading the bananas.

In all honesty, though, there is little need to worry. There is, at most, an 80% chance one came to your country, on a shipment of fruit, and somehow found its way into your house, into some dark, warm, quiet corner where you won’t notice it until it is too late…

However, on the plus side, one component of its venom is being studied as a potential cure for erectile dysfunction. Because if there’s one thing that really gets the ladies in the mood, it is knowing that you are taking a drug based on the venom of a lethal spider. So romantic…

Evil on eight legs.

There is a list of things that make me uncertain of someone’s sanity. Having THIS FUCKING SPIDER crawl about on your arm without immediately brushing it off is no.1. (From Wikimedia Commons)