May 30, 2020
What You May Have Not Known About Parasites by Austin Stoltzfus
A mosquito waving towards the camera in a macro photographSource: Pexels
As I’m sure we’re all aware of at this point, something as microscopic as a virus can cause death and destruction on a global scale. But some of these tiny foes are much more creative in the way they affect animals and humans alike. More specifically, parasites.
For most people, when asked about parasites, they might answer with the infamous mosquito and add something like, “Isn’t it only the females who bite?”
Not that the mosquito wouldn’t anyway, but the parasite, Plasmodium, certainly encourages the mosquito to bite as much as possible by clogging the vector’s mouthparts.
This happens shortly after feeding begins, forcing the mosquito to bite many times, and people, ingesting small amounts at a time as opposed to one large helping.
And this is in no way a coincidence. This behavior allows for a more rapid spread of the malaria parasite. And ultimately, the goal (or success) of any organism (except maybe humans) is to reproduce as much as possible.
“Parasite” is just a classification of organisms and their lifecycle along with a few other attributes. The term reaches many different forms of life from amoebas to worms and ticks.
Although they may not all warrant our immediate attention, they’re certainly worth learning about.
For example, an ant, once infected with a type of trematode can be monitored abandoning its colony at night to cling to the tops of grass blades. Why? Because a sheep’s intestine is the required environment for the parasite to complete its next life cycle.
A more interesting example is the hairworm’s influence on crickets. Infected crickets are known to jump into bodies of water including swimming pools virtually guaranteeing their death. The hairworm immediately wriggles out of the helpless cricket where its reproductive cycle can continue.
While the crickets aren’t thought to be physically pushed into the water by the parasite, it’s thought that the worm influences the crickets to be attracted to light, which with the help of a bright moon, can reflect light off the water; directing the cricket to its watery grave.
There are plenty of more interesting examples in the book, “This Is Your Mind on Parasites” that helped create this shortened version.
Moving on, parasites are extremely clever in how they accomplish their complex lifecycles bouncing from one species to the next. It’s fascinating for us to learn how insects and rodents can be manipulated.
But what many people may not know, or may not want to know, is we aren’t immune to parasites and their ability to manipulate us.
It’s easy to think about how we can be physically manipulated like how the guinea worm that goes from a human’s skin to water which is accomplished by producing a burning sensation in our skin, forcing us to head to nearby water. But could our brains be the control center for a microscopic parasite and our own behavior not entirely be ours?
It’s an uncomfortable thought but according to the author and her reference to several studies there is a possibility, yes. Toxoplasma gondii a parasite that is found in the feces of most cats has been shown to potentially cause carelessness in rodents and maybe even humans.
It has been proven that rats infected with the parasite actually seek out cat urine and are more likely to be eaten. Allowing the parasite access to its definitive host, the cat.
Humans have been found to become infected by cleaning a cat’s litterbox. The exact effect this parasite has on people is still unclear, but several studies have shown that it does tend to have an effect on a person’s behavior.
At one point in the book, the author, Kathleen McAuliffe, mentions a coroner who tells his assistant that whenever someone has died in a motorcycle accident to check for the presence of Toxoplasma. The author discusses much more about this interesting parasite found in select people’s brains which can be found in the book.
Are we in absolute control of ourselves? Or are we yet another species that can be manipulated by parasites?
Credits: I got the idea for this article based entirely on the book by Kathleen McAuliffe, “This Is Your Brain on Parasites.”
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