Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tongue-Eating Parasite on The Rise

Photo courtesy Clever Cherry

There has been such an amazing amount of information revealed in the last little while regarding animal discoveries that it’s hard to keep up. The number of new species discovered recently has overwhelmed scientists. Changes in animal behaviour, adaptations to climate changes, and increases in some species' numbers have alarmed scientists.

Another newsworthy creature has emerged that is reminiscent of sci-fi movies. What makes this creature newsworthy is the number of live specimens that have been found recently. In what could be a cross between "The Body Snatchers" and "Alien", this tiny creature is being found alive more and more often causing concern in the scientific world.

This alien-like creature survives by eating the tongue of its host and then attaching itself inside the mouth in place of the tongue. The sea-dwelling carnivore attacks a fish, burrows into it and then slowly eats its tongue. Unbelievably, the fish doesn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, beside the loss of its tongue, and seems to manage very well with its new tongue.

Photo courtesy BBC. This isopod was found in a weaver fish.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia. This is the underside of a giant isopod - a larger variety of the type found in the weaver fish.

While the isopod, a kind of louse, has been known to exist for a while now, discoveries of live specimens are rare. This type of isopod is cousin to the land-bound woodlouse.

In a news article, the BBC reports that "Fishermen near the Minquiers - islands under the jurisdiction of Jersey - found the isopod, a type of louse, inside a weaver fish."

The Bailiwick of Jersey is off the coast of Normandy, France. As well as the island of Jersey itself, the bailiwick includes the nearly uninhabited islands of the Minquiers, Écréhous, the Pierres de Lecq and other rocks and reefs.

Marine researcher Paul Chambers, from the Société Jersiaise, was one of the fishing party that discovered the parasite and eventually identified the find.

He said, “I struggled for weeks to find an identification for this thing until, quite by chance I stumbled across something that looked similar in a Victorian journal.”

Experts at the University of Southampton not only were able to confirm that the creature was an isopod, they were also able to confirm that there had been several sightings of them in Cornwall in 1996.

Chambers said he was surprised to find the isopod away from the Mediterranean Sea. Isopods are normally about 2cm (1in) long and live in fish, surviving on the animal's blood, in warm waters.

Cut-away side view showing parasite in situ

One of the fishermen described the discovery as: "Really quite large, really quite hideous - if you turn it over its got dozens of these really sharp, nasty claws underneath and I thought 'that's a bit of a nasty beast'."

The isopod is harmless to humans except for the fact that it has a nasty temper: "It doesn't affect humans other than if you do actually come across a live one and try and pick it up - they are quite vicious, they will deliver a good nip."

Here's a very short video of the deep sea isopod - the larger and much more well-known cousin of the one found in the weaver fish.

Deep Sea Isopods (Bathynomus giganteus) are gigantic isopods that live on the sea floor in certain parts of the world, including the Gulf of Mexico. They have an oblong body, four sets of jaws and very large compound eyes. At maturity, they can grow up to 18 inches in length and weight up to three pounds. They live at depths 1,200 feet or greater.

However, in Northern Taiwan and other areas, the deep-sea isopods are not uncommon at seaside restaurants, served boiled and bisected with a clean lateral slice. The white meat, similar to crab or lobster in texture, is then easily removed.

I have several more strange happenings of nature to come. Stay tuned!

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