Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This Week's Sci-Fi Worthy Parasite

Mind Control. Body-Snatchers. They sound like they're straight out of a science fiction novel, but the truth is parasites have been ahead of us in manipulatory technology for eons. They're the best of the best at making another species bend to their will. Here are some examples of some science facts that sound like they belong in science fiction - all courtesy of your everyday parasite.

So, since I already have a weekly does of cute, I figure I'll balance it out with a weekly dose of something that's about as far from cute as I can find - a really awesome parasite.

The most familiar example of how parasites change their host's behavior is rabies. When I say "rabies", what image comes to mind? A angry, violent, animal frothing at the mouth, most likely. But both of those qualities - aggression and salivating - are the work of the rabies virus itself. The virus, once in its host's system, makes its way to the brain through the nervous system, where it concentrates on the salivary glands and aggression pathways to ensure its passage to the next host.

The weekly parasites will all do crazy science fiction-worthy feats of mind control, body-snatching, or the like. I'll keep doing it as long as I can find good ones... we'll be set for a while, I promise.

Myrmeconema neotropicum infected antWithout further ado, this week's parasite: Myrmeconema neotropicum

Myrmeconema neotropicum infected antThis little nematode takes over its hosts body and mind to be transmitted to its next host. The unfortuante victim: ants. These ants have tried hard, evolutionarily, to avoid predation by birds. They have a whole slew of chemical defenses and a hard exoskeleton to make them less than appetizing, a trick which has worked. Because the birds have learned that ants aren't the best meals, the parasite has to trick the birds into eating the infected insects. Infected ants' abdomens, normally small and black, swell to look like large, red berries that the birds feed on. It also makes the ants sluggish and slow moving, thus more likely to be spotted and eaten.

It's the first example of fruit mimicry by a parasite, and was only discovered in the past few years. Scientists had previously assumed that the red-bottomed ants were simply a different species of ant than the black-bottomed ones - that is, until they looked at them under a microscope.