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Five Of The Most Incredible Parasites

Parasitism is a general term for a ‘non-mutual symbiotic relationship’ between species. Here one species – the parasite – benefits at the expense of the other (called the host). Parasites rarely kill their host; however, carrying a parasite can cause a range of unpleasant symptoms.

Parasites range in size from tiny, one-celled organisms (protozoa) to worms (helminths) that can be seen clearly via the naked eye. We look at five of the most disgusting types:

Parasitoid wasps

These parasitoids destroy and often consume their hosts. The parasitoid wasps lay its eggs inside its victim. This is with the intention of the wasp larvae eventually devouring their way out of the host.

Furthermore, several species can control their host’s minds. For instance, the larvae of the wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga, which infests spiderscan make its victim spin unusual webs, designed to support the cocoon that the larvae will need to transform into a wasp.

Bacterium that kill males

A type of bacterium called Wolbachia infests many invertebrates. The organism is adept at spreading. In female hosts, the organism reside in eggs. The bacterium seems to be able to differentiate males and females. As males play no role in the organisms continuation, it tends to kill them and this increases the rate of females born. An example of this practice is with fruit flies.

Ant-fooling butterfly

Acting like a type of cuckoo, the Japanese lycaenid butterfly Niphanda fusca lays its eggs in the nests the carpenter ant Camponotus japonicus.

When the caterpillars hatch the ants are tricked, through the release of a chemical compound, into thinking the caterpillars are ants. Not just ordinary ants, however, but high-ranking male ants. These means the caterpillars receive the best care and food, often at the expense of other ants.

Eye-infesting worm

A worm called Loa loa, found in West African rainforests, can infect humans via the bite of a deerfly or a mango fly. The worm enters the skin and moves around, consuming on human tissues. If the worm enters the eye, then it can cause a very painful infection. The disease is called loiasis.

In order to be transmitted to the next host, when the sun comes out the worm moves into the bloodstream so, when a person is bitten by a fly, there is a chance the fly picks up a worm with the blood. The worm can then be passed onto the next human host.

Zombie ants

A fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis can transform carpenter ants into zombie-like creatures. The fungus lives on the undersides of leaves of plants that grow on the forest floor. The fungal parasite enters the ants. Once inside it erupts a long stalk from the head of the ant and controls its movements. The aim is to spread spores to other ants. The process of infection is likely to have gone on for millions of years.

These are just a few examples of the bizarre parasites in the natural world.

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.