Archive for the ‘Arthropods’ Category

Well, it has been a long time since this blog was up-dated. I have a variety of intricate excuses for this; ranging from escaping rogue Russian spies whilst continuing a passionate affair with a dispossessed Polish noblewoman; to helping helping African orphans escape the militia of a murderous dictator whilst seducing the manager of the orphanage, to parachuting into Pakistan to halt the Taliban’s attempt to build a nuclear missile and rescue a captured, sexy-yet-deadly CIA agent. After all, if you’re going to lie, you might as well lie big. The Polish noblewoman, though, is totally real. And hot.

The plain truth, though, is that I simply forgot that I actually had this blog. So…y’know, sorry about that.

You should see the excuses I make for forgetting Christmas presents.

Now, there are many sayings in life which can instantly fill you with dread, ranging from ‘Hello, this is your bank manager, and there seems to be some trouble with your account’, to ‘Say another word, American dog, and you die”. But surely, the most terrifying thing you will hear today is not how much debt you’re now in, how close the world has come to nuclear war in the last sixty years, how fragile the threads that hold together our mockery of a civilization are, or how much your next power bill will be.

No, it is simply this.

“Some. Spiders. Live. In. Groups.”

It is possible that your brain, in a futile attempt to stop you from realising the true horror of the universe, blocked the above sentence from your consciousness. So go back, and read it again.

Finished crying yet? Good.

The spiders loath the taste of tears, and you don’t want to make them…hungry. Image credit: http://www.historycarper.com/wordpress/2010/kingdom-of-the-spiders-aka-nails-creek/. Nest is attributed to Guatemalan long-jawed spiders, aka Tetragnatha guatemalensis.

Yes, not all spiders are solitary. Although they are generally regarded as extreme individualists, to the extent that spider sex frequently results in the female eating the male (who sometimes willingly feeds himself to her, because males are stupid in the presence of females in all species) some spiders are known to form colonies, because God hates you. The only slim crumb of comfort is that, of the around 40,000 known spider species (which my arachnophobic friends insist is 40,000 too many) just over twenty can really be classed as social. Incredibly, however, this behaviour appears to evolve quite a bit; with these social spiders scattered across eight different families; meaning that spiders becoming social has happened more than once (Agnarsson et al 2006, well worth reading for the simple sentence “spider sociality is significantly spindly”). As to why it evolves, the most common explanation (besides the obvious ‘vengeful deity’ theory) is that it arises from maternal care patterns. In some species, for a number of reasons (geography, etc) there may very strong selection pressures against young spiders dispersing, as they do in most species. Thus, ‘social’ spiders will be selected for; and over time the species will become more communal. Advantages, of group living include saving on ‘per spider’ silk usage, access to larger prey, predator defence, and easy access to mates.

Only horror lurks under that web. (Image credit; http://bio-lenguasext.blogspot.co.uk/2012_07_01_archive.html, Webcredit; Anelosimus eximus)

One example of a communal spider is   Anelosimus eximus; which is found throughout South America. The spiders co-operate in web construction, maintenance, and cleaning, and also, horribly, in prey capture. They even have a form of co-operative child rearing, where female spiders regurgitate their meals to provide food for youngsters. Most awful of all, however, is the fact that each colony can contain thousands of individuals (Smith 1986). How that was worked out, we don’t know, and neither do we wish to, although we guess it involved a lot of traumatized PhD students. It has also been suggested that this spider is eusocial, like most ants, wasps and termites, because it is thought most females don’t actually reproduce. This system probably arose because a large proportion of the spider’s food requires communal capture; thus spiders which can compete better have more resources to devote to reproduction. In hard times, when few insects/other arthropods/hobbits/children wander into the web of horror, the fact that some females monopolise all the food captured, despite the fact it was caught cooperatively, possibly  allows the colony to survive.  (Rypstra 1993). Also, living in groups allows better protection against kleptoparasitic spiders, which are other species of spider which try and steal the food caught in webs. Larger groups of spiders are better at protecting their food than smaller groups (Cangialosi 1990).

“You know what? We’ll get a take out” (Image credit: http://thinkjungle.com/rainforest-life/rainforest-spiders/)

However, ironically in  the spider Agelina consociata, it appears that actually spiders living in large groups have a lower food intake than those spiders in smaller groups, leading to lower egg production. Like A. eximus, co-operative hunting is common, and a swarm of as many as 40 spiders can feed on what is euphemistically called a ‘prey item’. But most of what is caught can readily be handled by a single spider. A possible explanation for this is that these spiders are rabid Communists, continuing to live in a commune even though it self-evidently doesn’t work. A more reasonable explanation, though, is that these spiders live in the West African rain forest, which, as the name suggests, can be rather rainy. This rain destroys spider webs fairly easily. By banding together to build and repair webs, individual spiders end up spending much less energy on web-building than they would individually, which presumably more than outweighs the fact that other spiders keep nicking all their food.

The war against the Spider-King will be won with blood, sweat, tears and a fire hose. (Image credit: http://apropok.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/szocilis-pkok.html)

Some spiders are vegetarian – or at least, mostly vegetarian, like that one friend we all have who “never eats meat. But I do like fish, and sometimes if some is going I’ll have that chicken”. Bagheera kiplingi feeds mostly on plant leaf tips and nectar. These spiders have been observed to share nests, and guard eggs and hatchlings, suggesting that this species is social to some extent (Meehan et al 2008). However, its also worth noting that cannibalism has been observed among  these spiders, which is pretty anti-social, to say the least.

Its probably useful to note that, so far as I’m aware, none of these spiders pose a threat to humans. Although if you come home one night and find that a bunch of communal spiders have taken over your home, it might be best just to let them have it.

 

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It just bugs me….(sorry)

Posted: October 8, 2013 in Arthropods

Have you ever thought about all the lies that you were taught as a kid?

Now, I’m not talking about you if, say, you went to school under the Taliban. There, you were undoubtedly taught that America is the embodiment of all evil; that stoning homosexuals to death or burying them alive is the most fun you can have in a sports stadium, and that if a girl wants to go to school, a wholly reasonable approach is to shoot her in the head. All of these, you may notice, are kind of completely untrue.

No, what I mean is the well meaning lies we were all taught about in primary school. Like, for example, ‘everyone’s opinion should be respected’. Why teachers even mention this is completely beyond me. Firstly, kids are stupid, and their opinions are thus completely worthless. Secondly, a quick glance at a comment thread almost anywhere on the internet, or a conversation with someone who believes in homeopathy or creationism or whatever, kind of shows that actually a great many people have opinions which should not be respected at all. Or ‘everyone’s good at something’, which again is utterly untrue. Quite a lot of people are good at literally nothing; although I guess this is a harsh lesson to teach to a group of seven year olds. Harsh, but I would argue necessary.

But of course, the real corker is ‘never judge a book by its cover’ or ‘don’t rely on first impressions’ or whatever. Again, I can see why kids are taught this, but it is a pretty rubbish lesson. On the whole, first impressions are backed up by second, third and eighty seventh impressions. For example, if you have a swastika tattooed on your face, I may instantly draw the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that you are a bit of a fool. I might even go so far as to speculate you are not a nice person.

Again, I could be wrong, but I suspect this man is not great at making long term life choices.

And this does not at all bring me smoothly on to the assassin bug; or, more precisely, to the assassin bug known as Acanthaspis petax. Now, it carries around a bunch of dead ants on its back, which I think we can all agree is slightly weird. Even a teacher who has never, ever, ever judged on first impressions might agree that a bug that is called ‘assassin’ and which carries around dead corpses attached to its own body is, perhaps, an animal deserving of being named as a (drum roll please, underpaid interns) Horrific Animal of the World.

“And this weeks contestant – an insect from South East Asia which gives a new meaning to the words ‘fashion victim’… (Image credit orionmystery.blogspot)

And they’d be right.

Like all assassin bugs, it is a member of the Reduviidae family of insects, which is the largest family of Hemiptera, or ‘bugs’. Now, ‘bugs’ are defined as proboscis (formed from insect mouthparts joined together) possessing insects; basically they have a straw which they use to suck out juices. Aphids, for example, are bugs which use their proboscis to suck out plant juices. And, since we are not judging books by their covers, or in this case bugs by their names…

…we’re forced to conclude that actually, assassin bugs fully deserve their name. What they do, you see, is locate a prey insect (which varies from species to species) and seize it with their legs. The stylet (like a sharp straw) is punched into the prey. This rasps away at the prey’s insides, reducing the prey’s innards to mush. However, because nature is cold and pitiless, the horror does not end there. The bug then injects toxins and digestive enzymes, such as amylases and proteases into the prey; breaking down the prey’s body inside its own exoskeleton into a soup which the assassin bug then, simply, slurps up through its proboscis (Cohen et al 1990, Sahayaraj and Muthukumar 2011).

But lots of bugs do this! What makes Acathaspis petax so special?

Well, what it does is, rather than discard the sad, broken husk of its prey, add insult to agonising death and use sticky threads to bind the corpse (usually an ants) to its own body. For a long time, no one was quite sure why it did it; aside from a few theorists who speculated that the bug wanted to fully embrace the notion of becoming a serial killer; although once again nature has gone one better than humanity – off the top of my head, I can’t think of one psychotic murderer, real or imagined, who went around with as many as twenty of his victim’s corpses on his back.

“Carrying around all those murdered college students gives me backache”

However, in 2006 the mystery was partially solved (Jackson and Pollard 2007), after a group of scientists, presumably after taking several swigs of morale boosting brandy, found that the mountain of ant corpses on the bug’s back acted as defence against a group of spiders called salticids, which hunt almost exclusively using vision. The spiders stalked ‘naked’ bugs – i.e. bugs without a decent covering of ants – far more than they did ‘clothed’ bugs. It was theorised that the pile of dead ants on top of the bug’s back hid the shape of the bug and confused the spider. In addition, it had previously been noted (Cooper and Vitt 1991) that when a spider did jump on a bug, there was a chance the pile of corpses would fall off the bug, allowing the bug in all the confusion to escape. Finally, it may use ants in paticular for this purpose because ants tend to swarm and attack other predators – so the spider might be wary of attacking a big ball of (admittedly somewhat inert) ants (http://notexactlyrocketscience.wordpress.com/2008/01/01/assassin-bugs-deceive-spiders-with-coat-of-many-corpses/ ).

So this bug wears a suit of murdered ants to protect it from ravenous spiders which could leap at it at any moment. Gotta love Nature. (Picture credit eversostrange.com)

 

 

Oh, and just in case you haven’t lose enough sleep yet – there are some assassin bugs that feed on vertebrate blood. Sometimes, they are called “kissing bugs”, because they tend to bite on the lips or other parts of the face; making it, after a sloppy kiss from a drunken coworker who has just vomited all over the boss, the very worst kiss you can possibly have. And, to put the cherry on it, they can carry the parasite which causes Chagas disease. This can cause, in the short term, fever, fatigue, aches, diarrhoea and vomiting. In the longer term it can get worse, leading to heart problems, damage to the nervous system and recurring bouts of illness – its thought that Charles Darwin was bitten when he travelled around the world on the beagle, which explains the frequent attacks of sickness he suffered throughout his life.

All from one little bug.

Hello, and welcome again to another episode of Horrific Animals of the World! I hope many of you have already gone travelling, met exotic people and not gotten attacked by horrible animals. If you were attacked, I hope at no point did you use this blog as any sort of guide on what to do. If you did, you are likely reading this from an intensive care ward and I shall have to engage the services of a solicitor.

As most of you will suspect, I lead a life utterly devoid of excitement or adventure. Therefore, I spend a surprising amount of time on Wikipedia, and the other day I learnt there is such a thing called ‘coulophobia’, or ‘fear of clowns’ – although the term does not appear in any actual pyschology textbook. This was useful information, and I paused only to send various pictures of clowns to one of my coulophobic friends before I went on a page entitled ‘List of Phobias’.

We’re unsure where this phobia came from, but it might have something to do with the time a psychotic clown broke into his family home and ate his parents.

Well, it turns out there are literally hundreds. You can be gephyrophobic, or have an intense fear of bridges; hylophobic, or afraid of wood, or uranophobic, or afraid of heaven. If you are reading this blog, you are unlikely to have that particular phobia, partially because no one reading this will ever go there. Some ‘phobias’ listed, however, do not seem like ‘phobias’. For example, one can apparently be thanatophobic, agraphobic or algophobic, but personally I cannot see what is so irrational about fearing death, sexual abuse, or pain. (Insert tasteless joke here. Ed.)

Now, you may be wondering what this has to do with Horrific Animals of the World. The answer is that there is no phobia specific to centipedes. One can be arachnophobic, opidiophobic or entophobic, (spiders/arachnids, snakes and insects respectively) but there is nothing about being, say, chilopodaphobic, or irrationally afraid of centipedes.

And this is strange, when one considers the giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, or ‘Giant Centipede’. This weird and evidently none phobia causing beastie lives in the north of South America, such as Venezuela and Trinidad, and the islands offshore. It can reach lengths of around 30cm, which for any creepy crawly, centipede or not, is about 25cm too long, and is a glossy orange-brown colour. Like all centipedes it is divided into segments, and each segment has one pair of legs on it. Thus, if you are ever in Colombia or thereabouts, and you feel what seems like a hundred little legs on your neck, your day might be about to get even worse.

Things can always get worse. (Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons)

Now, why should this animal cause phobias? Well, firstly it feeds, as Wikipedia helpfully notes, on pretty much whatever it can kill – so other invertebrates, mice, rats, snakes, frogs and suchlike are all fair game. Even more ominously, they have also been seen snatching bats from mid-air; hanging from a cave roof by their bottom sets of legs like Satan’s Christmas decorations until a nearby bat flies past. Using its antennae to detect air distubances, it swings out and catches a bat flying past, injecting it with enough venom to kill (Molinari et al 2005, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UROVfmY3NTA).

Who needs ‘nightmare free sleep’ anyway? (Photocredit http://arthropoda.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/giant-bat-eating-centipedes/, which is like this blog but better.

So firstly, these centipedes hunt bats in pitch dark caves, which aside from anything else seems like an inspiration for any insane criminal in Gotham city. More to the point, these animals are also capable of delivering a painful (though rarely fatal – only one death is on record) sting, which causes intense pain (according to one account, rather like having your hand plunged into boiling water), sickness, dizziness and swelling. The venom contains serotonin, a cardiodepressant called ‘Toxin S’ and proteases. Fortunately, although the bite is painful, the wound usually heals with little works required from doctors (indeed, one person managed to get themselves stung by a giant centipede 3 times in the paper cited below) and it is estimated that it would take around 1000 venom glands from these centipedes to kill a healthy adult male (http://caribjsci.org/aug05/41_340-346.pdf). Lets just hope they never hear about ‘teamwork’.

“There’s no I in Team Centipede” (Photocredit Wikimedia Commons)

This will be an important post for two reasons.

Firstly, it is the thirteenth post. Obviously, this will bring extremely bad luck to someone, hopefully not me. So if you finish reading this to discover someone (probably me, in fairness) has sent you a parcel containing a still living sea wasp, or whatever, don’t be too surprised

Secondly, this’ll be the last post for a while, as it turns out I actually have a degree to do; and it turns out giving out extremely poorly informed advice on how to deal with various unpleasant animals is not, in itself, enough to get one. This is a tad annoying, I have to admit, as I was hoping to base my entire career around getting paid lots of money to give out extremely poorly informed advice.

“Seriously, you guys should invade Russia. It’ll be a piece of cake”
(I was fired from the Wehrmacht shortly thereafter)

But here’s a piece of advice which is, actually, fairly well informed. If a South American tribe asks you if you want to participate in a ‘coming of age’ ceremony, refuse. And by ‘refuse’ I of course mean ‘run until you reach a place where the ‘coming of age’ ceremony does not include ants formed from pure Hate’.

Yeah, because some tribes actually do that, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Why, I have no idea. Possibly its because TV and the Internet haven’t reached that far yet, and so there’s little in the way of entertainment aside from watching a boy leap around as the aforementioned ants inflict almost unimaginable pain upon him.

Well, it beats Monopoly, at least.

The ant is Paraponera clavata, and it is so unpleasant that it is the only ant in its genus; with all the other ant species being too afraid to be placed in the same group as it (I presume that is how taxonomy works). However, this ant is also known by some rather more colourful names, such as  ‘the bullet ant’ and  ‘giant hunting ant’.

Nothing about this animal is good. Nothing. (Photocredit: Wikimedia Commons)

You will notice that, firstly, the words ‘harmless’ or ‘cuddly’ did not appear just then, and secondly that ‘giant’ is a word you really, really do not want to be applied to ants.

Why is it called the ‘bullet ant’, you may ask. Well, people who have been stung by it claim the pain is equivalent to getting shot. Whilst I have no way of actually verifying this [well, actually, you kind of do…Ed] there is no doubt that this is an exceptionally painful sting. Other names for it  include the ‘twenty four hour ant’, as the pain does not go away for that long.

This inch long piece of horror lives mostly in the lowland rainforests in northern South America, and lives in fairly small nests – usually numbering at most only a few thousand individuals. This is, as we shall see later, extremely good news.

Back to the sting. Once upon a time, there was a man called Justin Schmidt, who obviously was really hated by his careers advisor. His job involved collecting various species of venomous insects, and obviously he regularly got stung by them. Whilst the rest of us would simply quit that job, retreat into the comforting embrace of Lady Liquor and possibly plot a horrific revenge upon said careers advisor, he simply noted down how painful these stings were, and over time he developed a ‘Pain Index’ of over 78 species. (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/3052/did-the-creator-of-the-schmidt-sting-pain-index-volunteer-to-get-stung-by-everything-on-earth)

This scale ranges from 1-4, and each insect has a somewhat bizarre description of the pain it causes. For example, the yellowjacket wasp scores a 2 and is “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue”, which to be honest sounds like a very pretentious wine review, whilst the puny sweat bee only scores a one and is like “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity”, which sounds even more like a wine review.

(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2148089/The-10-painful-stings-planet-self-sacrificing-man-tried-150-different-varieties-science.html)

“This wine has an acidic, bitter aroma; with a burning aftertaste. Perfect for awkward family meals or a futile dinner to try and repair your failing relationship”

This man, who was stung over a hundred times by some of the nastiest insects on the planet, put the Bullet Ant top of the list. The ant scores a ‘4+’, and was described as ‘immediate, excruciating pain’ and ‘pure, intense, brilliant pain’. In conclusion, the man who probably had more experience of insect stings and bites than anyone else ever thought that this was the worst pain he had ever encountered. The pain is frequently described as a burning sensation, which can continue for a day. As well as the pain, numbness, paralysis and trembling of the affected limb has also been noted (

http://web.expasy.org/spotlight/back_issues/sptlt014.shtml). And this is just one sting, from one ant. If you were unfortunate (and given that this is the thirteenth post, you may well be) enough to fall headfirst into a nest of these animals, you could well die. The trembling and paralysis is almost certainly down to the protein poneratoxin, which blocks synapses, leading to loss of muscle control. However the component which causes the pain has yet to be isolated.

To become a man in certain tribes, they have an initiation rite, where young men have to place their whole arms inside a ‘glove’ made out of leaves, inside of which are woven bullet ants. The aspirant must keep his arm inside the glove for ten minutes, and not scream. This obviously leads to temporary paralysis and uncontrollable shaking that can last for days. And to become a man, they must do this twenty times; which serves as a terrible, terrible warning of what happens when you allow practical jokers to dictate your most sacred traditions. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGIZ-zUvotM)

Firstly, I must start off with several apologies.

Firstly, to the Sheffield Fluffykins Petting Zoo, I apologise for my attempt to teach the whole concept of ‘food webs’ using animals in the Zoo itself. This was on the whole uneducational, and on the rare occasion when the carnivores co-operated, incredibly distressing for the children present. So sorry about that. On the plus side, I hear Jimmy will be out of the hospital soon.

Secondly, to my colleagues at the laboratory. I accept full responsibility (in a moral, but not in a legal or financial, or indeed in any concrete sense) for the events of last Monday, which prior to any court case must remain undisclosed. I do, however, feel that the results we got may prove to be very exciting, once the area is declared safe to re-enter, and frankly I feel terms like ‘dangerously irresponsible’, ‘criminally negligent’ and ‘verging on war-crimes’ were thrown around far too liberally.

And finally, and most importantly, to you lot. I know that its been a long time since I last posted. I did intend to do a Valentine’s day special, but sadly time makes fools of us all. If this is in fact the first inkling you had that Valentine’s day had come and gone, don’t bother to rectify the situation. In all probability your significant other is so disgusted with you that even now they are participating in the most vile orgy seen since Caligula.

Of course, also I apologise wholeheartedly for the screaming nightmares you will be having after reading this. Particularly if you have two X chromosomes.

Its no secret that most people’s lives really were rather unpleasant in the years prior to around 1950. Before science and technology came along, everything was itchy, dirty, smelly and uncomfortable. You were ill for a lot of the time, for which the only cure were ‘twigs and a toad boiled in water’, spent most of your life engaged in back-breaking labour, and the only amusement was the occasional witch-burning. Of course, life tended to be even worse if you were female, mostly because your legal status varied from ‘second class citizen’ to ‘nice ornament in the corner’ depending on where and when we’re talking about.

But still. In those days there was still some romance, some love, some tenderness. Unless, of course, you were a female bed-bug (, in which case ‘stabbings’ replaced ‘romance’, ‘stabbings’ replaced ‘love’ and tenderness was replaced with ‘many, many more stabbings’. The reason for this is that bed bugs, along with a few other species of invertebrates, practice what scientists call ‘traumatic insemination’, normal people call ‘oh God, that’s awful’ and people in high security institutions call ‘ a sexy time’. Because, you see, during mating females get stabbed by the males. Specifically, by the penises of the males.

This is either some creature that lives under Mars and feeds solely on brains, or the reproductive organ of a male bean weevil (Callosobruchus analis)

As an aside, if you think that ‘stabbings’, ‘hypodermic needles’ and ‘sex’ are words that belong in the same sentence, please never go near me. I do not wish to meet you and hope you are recaptured as fast as humanly possible.

This behavior is actually found across several phyla – the nematodes, the arthropods, the gastropods and the flatworms. This means that is must have evolved repeatedly in different groups of animals, which in turn means that, like some deranged killer, Evolution was so proud of her handiwork in this case that she did it again and again. It is most prevalent in the so called ‘true bugs’, or Heteroptera, where it appears to have evolved at least three times (Tatarnic et al 2006).

Because all arthropods have what is called an ‘open circulatory system’, where all the organs are bathed in the heamolymph (the insect equivalent of blood, more or less), the males can pierce the female’s exoskeleton and release their sperm, which then migrate towards the ovaries of the female. This of course disadvantageous the female considerably (and we would like to be considered for the winner of ‘Understatement of the year’. Ed.) Although insects don’t feel pain (either that, or scientists are reluctant to let us know the full horror of the world around us) being stabbed repeatedly can lead to numerous infections (Reinhardt et al 2005). Of course, the female also has to dedicate resources to repairing herself after the stabbings, and the open wound is an invitation to infections. Indeed, in labs this can be a serious problem, with bed-bug colonies dying out through disease brought about by the stabbing-based orgies.

So, how come this behavior evolved, given that the females who practice it tend to die earlier? Logically, one would expect that the males which engaged in this anti-social practice would end up having fewer offspring that those males which did whatever the bed-bug equivalent of a romantic first date is. One possible explanation is that, in some animals, after mating the male simply ‘plugs’ the female reproductive opening, preventing further males mating with that female. Therefore, traumatic insemination allows future males to circumvent this problem in perhaps the most horrible manner possible. Another explanation is that it simply saves the male time spent on courtship displays, which I guess is rather like a bank robber saying he robs banks because working for the money would take too long. Finally, of course, it could be a solution to the problem of a female that does not want to mate at all.

“This is taking too long, and I’ve better things to do. I should probably just stab her with my penis”

Some female bugs, such as the African Bat-bug (Afrocimex constrictus) mimic male structures, presumably in an attempt to avoid these costly inseminations (Reinhardt et al 2007). However, this might not always work, even if the males are taken in.  ‘Homosexual traumatic insemination’ has been noted to occur (in places other than prisons, I should note) and in some cases it appears that it can happen between species. This can lead to fatal immune reactions in the insect stabbed, and also indicates that the insects which practice this method of mating are either very short sited or have very, very low standards.

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!

 

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)