Last night at the National Geographic Society in Washington, I gave a talk with photographer Anand Varma about how parasites manipulate their hosts–the subject of my cover story in the November issue of National Geographic and Varma’s aesthetic obsession for the past couple years. Along with his gorgeous photos, Varma also showed off some lovely/creepy videos. I thought I’d share a couple of them with you. Pop them into full screen for full appreciation.
First off: Ophiocordyceps, a fungus that takes control of an ant. The fungus spores invade an ant’s body and then fill much its interior with tendrils. Under the fungus’s spell, the ant climbs up a plant and clamps down on the underside of a leaf. This movie, which Anand took in the Amazon working with Joao Araujo, a biology grad student at Penn State, shows the ant in its last hours, shot upside down for clarity. The fungus shoots a spike of spores out of the ant, which can then rain down on unfortunate ants below.
The second video shows how the white butterfly wasp takes over the cabbage butterfly caterpillar. A female wasp inserts her stinger into the host and injects dozens of eggs. They grow inside the caterpillar, which continues munching on leaves–leaves that now fuel the growth of the parasites inside. They chew their way out all at once, and yet they don’t kill the caterpillar. They prevent it from bleeding to death by thickening its bodily fluids and seal up their exit holes with bits of their own tissue. The caterpillar recovers from this strange birth and then spins a cocoon for the wasp larvae. It then sits atop its parasitic brood, fending off any animals that try to get at the wasps. At the end of the movie, you see the most dreaded of these enemies: another species of wasp that only lays its eggs in the larvae of the white butterfly wasp.
If you’re in Connecticut, you can come hear me talk about these puppet masters at the Westport Library on Saturday at 4 pm. And if you still crave more, check out my book Parasite Rex.
[Update: Added Araujo to post]