While studying someones behavior, people usually make one general assumption: the person is in charge of their own actions. What if this is not always the case? Ed Yong takes us on a disillusionising journey to the world of parasites and their hosts – and why some of them have “as much control over their future as a car.”
In the world of animals, there are plenty of parasites known for their capability of directly influencing the brain and behavior of their victims. When describing an infected caterpillar, Yong goes as far as naming it “a head-banging zombie bodyguard defending the offspring of the creature that killed it.”
eat prey, love
Without wanting to spoil the fun of listening to his TED Talk, here a few more of Yongs disturbing, yet hilarious examples. Among others, Yongs tale features cat-seeking rat-missiles, tapeworms that make shrimps sociable, suicidal crickets and wasps that take cockroaches for walks.
Ed Yong – actually a science writer – stumbled across parasites in a book a few years ago. Ever since then, they “have subverted my own brain. They are always compelling.” Much to his own amusement, Yong can’t help but notices that “when you study them your lexicon swells with phrases like ‘devoured alive’ and ‘bursts out of the body.’”
There is more scientific value to the study of parasites than their influence on the researchers’ vocabulary. Manipulation and mind control by parasites are not oddities, they have a critical influence on issues such as biodiversity and natural selection. Yong adds: “Given the widespread nature of such manipulations, it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”
The Lone Star tick – not mentioned in Yongs TED Talk – could be one of those examples. Recent findings suggest that people who get infected through a tick bite can get allergic to red meat – rendering them semi-vegetarian. Could this be natures hint towards our carnivorous dietary habits?
In any case, Yong himself makes the best advertisment for his talk, when he says that “parasites invite us to look at the world sideways. And this makes them as charismatic and wonderful as any panda, butterfly, or dolphin.”
Header image credits: Royalty free