Tuesday, April 19, 2011 7:04
We don’t have the world quite as figured out as we’d like to think. This is a major reason why most people aren’t as interested as others in exploring space; we haven’t even come close to exploring our own back yards. While I am looking forward to reading about further study of Mars, and beyond, I tend to agree.
Why just last year 145 new species were identified in Greater Mekong, and another 200 new species were discovered in Papua New Guinea. On top of all that, the year 2010 saw 1/3 of formerly extinct animals suddenly “resurrected.”
Among the creatures that scientists are studying further are a frog that sounds like a cricket, a “sucker fish” which uses its body to stick to rocks in fast flowing waters to move upstream, and something called a “dracula minnow.”
And then there have been some recent discoveries that sound like the stuff of classic horror films. One involves “four newly discovered species of fungus turn carpenter ants into zombie ants to help them spread their spores.” Another recent story involves a microorganism that rewires the brain of its host, causing the host to put itself into harm’s way.
Ants become infected with the fungus when spores land on them from above, or when they encounter them on the forest floor. Once attached, the spores use enzymes to get inside the ant’s body where the fungus begins to grow. Within a week or so, chemicals released by the fungus cause the ant to wander off and bite on to leaf veins and other vegetation, moments before dying. Many ants are found in places where the conditions are perfect for fungal growth.
Once the ant has died, the fungus slowly sprouts from its head and grows a pod of spores which are fired onto the forest floor at night, to infect other ants.
About the mind-controlling microorganisms, here’s something unsettling from The Guardian:
Toxoplasma gondii is a microorganism that likes nothing better than to set up residence inside a warm-blooded host, typically a rat. The only time it gets particularly fussy over its surroundings is when it comes to sex, which can only take place in a cat. That poses a bit of a problem for the parasite, as rats aren’t known for their fondness of the feline race.
But T. gondii has a very clever trick up its sleeve: it rewires the rat brain. Rodents infected with T. gondii lose their instinctual fear of cats and engage in reckless risk-taking that sooner or later puts them into the jaws of a passing cat.
Should we be concerned that around 40% of the human race is infected with T. gondii?
For a long time, nobody thought so. T. gondii is known to cause birth defects and precipitate spontaneous abortions, and for that reason pregnant women are warned to stay away from cats. But it’s also one of any number of bugs that we pick up in our lifetime without experiencing any noticeable effects.
That perception changed when a Czech parasitologist named Jaroslav Flegr decided to look for evidence that T. gondii’s mind-meddling extends beyond rats. Testing the blood of drivers responsible for causing traffic accidents, he discovered they were two and a half times more likely to have been exposed to T. gondii than the general population. Might these drivers have been unwittingly egged on by a tiny parasite?
While recent research suggests that this microorganism isn’t able to impose the same kind of control that it can over a rat, the research does suggest that it is able to impose influence. You can read about Jaroslav Flegr’s traffic accident study HERE.
This find is intriguing. A microorganism that deliberately influences people and animals to engage in risky behavior is intriguing; and opens up many questions. Is this something to consider when hearing about someone who was gripped with the urge to drive into oncoming traffic? Is this microorganism something that could be utilized by us humans; for example, as a treatment for someone who is too shy?
Frank Swain looked at research linking changes in human behaviour to parasitic infection for a Radio 4 documentary Voodoo Wasps and Zombie Worms airing on Tuesday, and then re-airs on Thursday.
- There are voodoo wasps and zombie worms, what about people? (guardian.co.uk)
- “Zombie Fungus ~ Mind-Control of Brazilian Ants!” and related posts (maximizingprogress.org)
- Your feet – Onychomycosis (Nail fungus) (feetandpodiatry.wordpress.com)
- Zombie Ant-pocalypse: New Species of Mind-Controlling Fungus Found (geeksaresexy.net)
- Zombie ants: Killer fungus turning Amazon rainforest ants into colonies of zombies (dailymail.co.uk)