I saw a video on Facebook the other day, of ‘the most disgusting parasite ever’, in which an adult loa loa (a nematode worm) is being removed from a human eye. Please do not watch the video if you’re faint hearted – I watched it whilst eating dinner, not a very good idea..
But it did get me thinking about parasites, and my opinion on what the most ‘disgusting’ parasite is, which can really be changed to the most ‘fascinating’ – because, come on, they are really fascinating!
My immediate answer is fungi. I know, I know, “how can fungi compare to eye-dwelling worms?”, but let me explain.
There are quite a few species of parasitic fungi, mostly in the Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps genera. They mostly parasitise insects and other arthropods, though a few parasitise other fungi.
Cordyceps can take down Tarantulas
The spores of Cordyceps ignota burrow into the body of a tarantula. They start to grow and branch throughout the spider, eventually killing it. Once the fungus has completely taken over, fruiting bodies burst though the exoskeleton and release spores, to complete the cycle.
But there’s an even more interesting, and horrifying, species of Ophiocordyceps, which ‘zombify’ ants.
Ophiocordyceps make ants bend to their will
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or the zombie-ant fungus (no joke), infects the carpenter ant, which live in tropical rainforests.
The fungus takes over the ant’s body, and eventually gets into its brain. The freaky thing is that the fungus can actually control the ant. The ant becomes a fungus zombie. The fungus makes the ant find perfect conditions for it to spore – on the underside of a leaf not far from the ground.
The ant bites down on the leaf in a ‘death grip’. Once the ant’s job is done, the fungus eats it from the inside and grows out from the ants head to release more spores. Other ants are unwittingly infected by these spores and the cycle continues. The precision in which the fungus makes the ant perform this ‘death-grip’ has astounded researchers.
There are many species of these fungi puppet masters, which have been specialising in parasitism for at least 48 million years.
Parasitising the parasite
The story becomes even more surreal when another parasitic fungus joins the mix. The secondary fungus (or hyperparasite) grows over the dead ant and the emerging stalk, which completely prevents the ‘zombie-ant’ parasite from producing spores. What’s more is that these fungi hyperparasites specialise on infecting different species of fungi parasites.
Are humans next?
Luckily for us, this is not The Last of Us – a video game where 60% of humanity is wiped out by a parasitic Cordyceps, which turns people into, you guessed it, zombies.
Unlike other parasites, such as the malaria virus which makes infected people more attractive to mosquitos, parasitic fungi cannot parasitise us, let alone influence our behaviour.
In fact, a few fungi in the Cordyceps genus have medicinal value. Cordyceps subsessilis has been used in immunosuppressive drugs for organ transplants. So the zombifying killer is actually helping us survive – who would have thought?
In my opinion, a fungus that can zombify and control other creatures is by far the most sinister and fascinating of all parasites. Though, I’d really enjoy hearing your opinion on what the most ‘disgusting’ parasite is. Please comment below! 🙂
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