According to one estimate, parasites may outnumber free-living species four to one. He tells a story of having been set up on a blind date, and telling the lady all about his great enthusiasm for parasites. I really like books that teach me something and enlarge my world view, especially when they are as well written as these.
I'm going to gloss over the hundreds of thousands of species of tapeworms and parasitic wasps and go to the really crazy ones. Did you know parasites influence the behavior of their hosts in any number of ways?
Herewith some photographs illustrating parasite horribleness. Parasites often choose very particular and peculiar places to live. Another exit...here a worm-like parasite called a nematomorph escapes its cricket host.
One of the best non-fiction books I've read in years.
Ive always loved being creeped out, and I gravitate to things/animals that most people find revolting - I've had pet spiders in the past and I currently have two snakes (Julius Squeezer and Aphrobitey). So, naturally a book dedicated to parasites was something I wanted to pick up. The book opens with a story when he was visiting a hospital full of kids suffering from "sleeping sickness" which can be fatal, and causes extreme duress. Once the infection reaches your brain the situation becomes desperate - one of the few medicines that will work is 20% arsenic, and its so potent it eats through standard IV tubes, and specialized teflon tubes have to be ordered. Theres something called Onchocerca Volvulus aka River Blindess that not only causes you to go blind, but once the worms get into your skin (so mosquitos can get infected and in turn infect others) - people have been known to scratch themselves to death! *glares at Pokey* Back before we understood what parasites were, scientists and doctors didnt even recognize them as animals, they actually thought that parasites spontaneously arose in the human body as a symptom of an illness, not the cause of the illness itself. Parasites eluded study for a long time not just because the majority are extremely small - but also because of their highly complex life cycles, often requiring 2 or more hosts of different species to complete its cycle. Along with the different kinds of human parasites this book touches on a ton of different types of animal and plant parasites. While many parasites actually do a good job at not killing the host, and just causing minor inconviences... Hes traveled the world from the Amazon, to Africa and both sides of the USA studying parasites and their life cycles.
An organism (human or otherwise) that tends to live off another is what we refer to in simple terms as a parasite. These are topics typically left to the sci-fi authors or to the horror genre but Carl Zimmer in this thought provoking book tells us that such creatures do exist in nature. Carl Zimmer's prose is simple, direct and distilled down to the very basic elements which do a world of difference in terms of understanding the subject at hand. A convincing case indeed for one of nature's most overlooked set of organisms !
To help her children fight the immune system of the host, which would otherwise mummify them, she delivers the eggs packaged with viruses, which, like in AIDS, will control the host DNA to produce proteins that destroy the immune system. This package is already amazing, but where does the wasp get the viruses?
Before reading this book, I used to think of parasites as simple, passive, useless and even harmful creatures. The last one third of the book is dedicated to emphasizing the role of parasites in evolution, society and ecosystem. Parasites are not supposed to cause troubles but they really play essential roles in shaping the Tree of Life, animals' behaviors and help to balance the ecosystem.
I found this book fascinating in the way it followed these little guys around. If you don't want to read it, then go listen to Radio Lab's fascinating story called Parasites of three points made in the book which aired Sep 25, 2009.
Carl Zimmer is a columnist for the New York Times and the author of 13 books about science.