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Old May 31st, 2014 #1
News Bot
Post Jews of the animal kingdom: The Parasitic Worm That Turns Crickets Into Suicidal Maniacs

In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great marched his army into the city of Gordion, where there was a massive knot in desperate need of untying. Legend held that the hero who could undo this exceedingly intricate Gordian Knot, as it was not-so-creatively called, would rule Asia. Alexander, unable to unravel the knot, drew his sword and sliced right through it, then, apparently with the blessing of the eviscerated loops, went on to conquer Asia minor.

More absurd creatures:

The tall tale gives us the expression “to cut the Gordian Knot,” meaning to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem by over-the-top means. It also lends its name to one of the animal kingdom’s most clever parasites, the Gordian worm, which has solved the often insurmountable problem of survival with means that are horrifyingly over-the-top.

More commonly known as the horsehair worms, because folks with a limited understanding of reality once thought they were horsehairs that animated upon hitting water, the 350 or so known species invade insects like the luckless cricket above. After developing for several months, the worms mind-control their hosts to make a kamikaze dive into water, then escape through holes bored in the insect’s exoskeleton. The parasites end up in a tangled knot that can be as heavy as the tattered—and oftentimes very much alive—host they leave behind.

All across America in rivers or streams, horsehair worm eggs hatch and settle lazily to the bottom as larvae (we’ll be talking specifically about the species Paragordius varius and its parasitism of crickets). Unable to swim up the water column, the larva simply wait to be eaten by the larvae of other insects like midges, mayflies, and mosquitoes. When these insects metamorphose and emerge from the water, they live out their aerial lives with the larva in tow, then inevitably croak and get snatched up by a cricket, according to parasitologist Ben Hanelt of the University of New Mexico.

Once the worm larvae find themselves in the insect, “they will penetrate through the gut of the cricket and get into the body cavity, where they then grow from a tiny, tiny larva to something that’s now on the average of a foot long,” he said. (There’s a 6-foot species, by the way, that parasitizes an as-yet-unknown insect, probably a giant and perpetually nervous cockroach.)

Can you find the horsehair worms in this photo? It’s like Where’s Waldo, only horsehair worms despise horizontal stripes. Image: Ben Hanelt

Really, the horsehair worm is nothing more than a giant gonad wrapped in a thin sheath of muscles, and I say that with all due reverence. Curiously, they don’t even have a mouth to eat with or chew their way through the cricket, so Hanelt remains unsure how they bore into the body cavity, and then through the exoskeleton to escape.

And there’s no digestive system as we would recognize it, because like the tapeworms that take up residence in our guts, they’re living in a veritable sea of food. “The way that these guys actually get their nutrients is right through the cuticle,” said Hanelt. “Right through the skin of the worm is where the fat and the sugar is actually absorbed straight from the body fluids of the host.”

Robbed Zombies

Now, it’s nearly impossible to identify an infected cricket, for this is no clumsy zombie of popular culture. Outwardly, the cricket behaves quite normally, save for a brilliant little trick the worm plays: It manipulates them to shut the hell up with the chirping. Chirping is, after all, energetically expensive, not to mention a real fine way to get yourself noticed and eaten, a rather anticlimactic end to the worm’s grand scheme.

When the worm is ready to leave the cricket, though, you’ll know it. Typically crickets give running water a wide berth, instead getting their hydration from food and the occasional dew drop. According to Hanelt, you can take a non-infected specimen and drop it near running water and it’ll leg it right out of there, every time. The dangers of hungry fish and drowning are simply too great.

But a cricket infected with a horsehair worm swears, quite wrongly, that it’s a great swimmer. At the behest of the worm it seeks out bodies of water with its antennae, which pick up the slightest changes in humidity. Then, seemingly against its better judgment, the host proceeds to perform a sicknasty cannonball: “If you take a cricket that actually has a worm in it,” said Hanelt, “and put it next to the water, it will always, in every case, jump immediately in.”

After admiring the cannonball, the worm, monitoring the world through a porthole it bored in the cricket, makes its move, squirming out of its host as soon as it hits the water. In nature, it’s typically one worm per cricket, though every now and then two or three will emerge. In Hanelt’s lab, however, his record is an astonishing 32 worms erupting from one unfortunate host (that GIF at top, which I ain’t even about to apologize for, was half that many worms).

The parasite, now free, will swim around in search of a mate. When they pair up, the male aligns his cloaca with the female and passes his sperm. Having served his sole earthly purpose, he will die. The female goes on to lay as many as 15 million eggs, which she pastes underwater on a stick or stone. When she’s done, she too will die, emptied of eggs and totally flattened out like a straw wrapper that’s lost its straw. Two weeks later, her eggs hatch into the larvae that settle once more onto the river bottom, beginning the process anew.

It’s a remarkable tale of an organism adapting over evolutionary time to manipulate another and use it as a private escort. But how on Earth can the worm hijack a cricket’s brain? And why would this evolve in the first place?

After laying her eggs, the female horsehair worm perishes. Which is just as well, since she releases up to 15 million of the things. Ain’t nobody got time for that amount of parenting. Image: Matthew G. Bolek

“First of all,” said Hanelt, “t

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Old May 31st, 2014 #2
N.B. Forrest
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Join Date: Dec 2003
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N.B. Forrest

Next to the jew, perhaps the most revolting parasite ever.

"First: Do No Good." - The Hymiecratic Oath

"The man who does not exercise the first law of nature—that of self preservation — is not worthy of living and breathing the breath of life." - John Wesley Hardin


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