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Another Reason I'm Glad I'm Not An Ant
January 21, 2008 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Continuing the recent theme of horrifying parasites, here's an infectious little nematode that makes its host swell up into a plump, juicy, red berry so that birds will mistakenly eat its bloated ichorous abdomen and spread the eggs. (via)

By the way, in case anyone was wondering, Wikipedia says that nematodes have amoeboid sperm.
posted by XMLicious (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Gratuitous tapeworm thread
posted by XMLicious at 6:41 AM on January 21, 2008


posted "birds will mistakenly eat its bloated ichorous abdomen"

If the abdomen is licorice, I'd eat it too.
posted by orthogonality at 6:47 AM on January 21, 2008


That's ickerish.
posted by pracowity at 7:05 AM on January 21, 2008


And people say we are the only smart species on this planet..... Just because they are super small don't mean their stupid. I for one welcome our new micro-overlord!
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:22 AM on January 21, 2008


Carl Zimmer, who writes the "The Loom," one of the excellent blogs over at Science Blogs, has a book called Parasite Rex that looks at the odd life cycles and host relationships of parasites.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 7:26 AM on January 21, 2008


And people say we are the only smart species on this planet..... Just because they are super small don't mean their stupid.

Really? I wouldn't call that an example of intelligence.
posted by artifarce at 7:27 AM on January 21, 2008


If there's any intelligent species on earth, it's the chimpanzee. Not only were they in space before us, they convinced us to fund it for them.
posted by Narual at 7:32 AM on January 21, 2008 [13 favorites]


With a little whipped cream, that ant may indeed be tasty.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:38 AM on January 21, 2008


"It's just crazy that something as dumb as a nematode can manipulate its host's exterior morphology and behavior in ways sufficient to convince a clever bird to facilitate transmission of the nematode," Dudley said

It's just crazy something as smart as a professional biologist can have such a rudimentary and misleading way of articulating natural selection when given the chance in a major media outlet.

It's also just crazy that the Intelligent Designer made it all this way because it is so crazy to think otherwise. I mean, crazy stupid nematodes batting way out of their crazy league.

Or maybe this is a crazy symptom of a clever biologist getting one of these crazy dumb nematodes inside his own bloated red abdomen,
posted by Rumple at 7:44 AM on January 21, 2008


Right on, Rumple. It's blatant anti-nematodism. Fight the Biologist Power.

(Did you seriously just get enraged because nematodes were referred to as "dumb"? I think all the guy is doing is pointing out that the nematode has essentially outsmarted the bird in this interaction.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:53 AM on January 21, 2008


XMLicious -- not enraged. But it is that kind of sloppy expression that misleads the public about natural selection and makes them look for some supernatural explanation [NOT BIOLOGIST]
posted by Rumple at 7:57 AM on January 21, 2008


This was the exact parasite that caused so much trouble for Willy Wonka, and eventually made Violet Beauregarde swell up.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:15 AM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Like other ant biologists, I initially thought this was another species of Cephalotes," said Kaspari. "Robert didn't think so, and we made a bet over beers. Then Steve opened one up under the scope and - wow! I lost the bet."

Yeah but anything can look like Cephalotes after a few beers.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:24 AM on January 21, 2008


and to think my t. gondii just makes me have decreased novelty-seeking behavior.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:36 AM on January 21, 2008


I'm with you in that battle, Rumple.
Why is it so few others ever notice the rampant commonplace misrepresentation of evolution - not by ID'ers, but by a majority of lay- (and a growing number of non-lay-) folk in general? Is it so hard to get the basics right?
posted by progosk at 9:39 AM on January 21, 2008


::overheard at the gates of the city's clean zone::

"I am not infected!"

"Sir, you are three times the size listed on your ID and you are bright red"

"I'm telling you, it's just a rash!"

"Sir, there are birds trying to eat you even as we speak..."
posted by quin at 9:53 AM on January 21, 2008 [4 favorites]


I dunno. It doesn't even seem to me as if the guy mentioned anything about evolution. Amazement at the intricacy of this parasitic lifecycle and the the degree of acumen with which it takes advantage of other organisms is an expression of fascination that stands apart from the origin of said lifecycle.

If you guys want biologists of every sort to laud evolution every time they make an interesting discovery that seems to me as unreasonable as trying to get chemists to talk about quantum physics with every discovery in chemistry. And in fact, insinuating mention of evolution everywhere like that would actually seem to me as dogmatic as ID and Creationist people accuse the secular community of being. This guy has barely researched the nematode and its lifecycle, which he admits; for him to start talking about how it evolved would be a complete shot in the dark.
posted by XMLicious at 10:16 AM on January 21, 2008


XML - no one said evolution needs lauding. But why isn't it standard practice to avoid misleading representations?
How common is it to hear about animals having adapted to an evironment (they don't)? Or how frequently do you read about certain species evolving certain traits (they don't)? It's not true that these are just easier, more informal ways to describe the complex, radical process that is natural selection - this kind of terminology carries with it a charge that subtly undermines the very concepts it purports to explain.

Sure, it might take a little effort to jettison rote turns of phrase. Without a little precision in our language, let's not be surprised if folks don't "get" evolution.
posted by progosk at 10:41 AM on January 21, 2008


We should fly in Richard Dawkins to beat everyone with sticks until they comply.
posted by Artw at 11:15 AM on January 21, 2008


Parasites are absolutely fascinating (and horrifying).

I can't recommend Carl Zimmer's book "Parasite Rex" highly enough. It's one of the most interesting and well-written science books that I've read in many, many years.

He also has a great blog which often discusses new research from the nasty world of parasites. I think he's one of the best science writers on the planet.


BTW, on the topic of parasites, did anybody else read the amazing article on the current state of Morgellon's research and controversy in this weekend's Washington Post Magazine? I was actually thinking about making my first-ever FPP about it, it was so interesting.
posted by Auden at 12:16 PM on January 21, 2008


progosk : XML - no one said evolution needs lauding. But why isn't it standard practice to avoid misleading representations?

What misleading representation did he make? That's what I'm asking.

How common is it to hear about animals having adapted to an evironment (they don't)? Or how frequently do you read about certain species evolving certain traits (they don't)?

When someone is researching evolution, you hear it all the time. When the subject of research isn't evolution, you don't hear it. A biologist can't just go off telling a story about how he thinks something would have evolved. I mean, maybe when he's writing a popsci book or something he could, but not when he's doing science.

It's not true that these are just easier, more informal ways to describe the complex, radical process that is natural selection - this kind of terminology carries with it a charge that subtly undermines the very concepts it purports to explain.

What kind of terminology? It has nothing to do with formality or informality - if these guys started saying something about how this parasite or its behaviors or other characteristics evolved, they'd be making shit up. They can't attribute things to evolution just because they "know evolution is true" or something - science doesn't work that way. They're already kind of going out on a limb to talk about birds eating the ants when they didn't directly observe that - that's why they made sure to say they didn't see it.

It would be like a chemist simply looking at something and maybe sniffing it, then guessing what it was composed of, and presenting his guesses as research.
posted by XMLicious at 1:11 PM on January 21, 2008


Auden : Awesome Morgellon's link, here's your "previously".
posted by XMLicious at 1:28 PM on January 21, 2008


From the article:

"It's just crazy that something as dumb as a nematode can manipulate its host's exterior morphology and behavior in ways sufficient to convince a clever bird to facilitate transmission of the nematode," Dudley said.

What's (f)actually happening: the nematode's presence has an effect on the ant's colour, causing ("presumably", the article cautiously adds) birds to eat the ants, thereby spreading the worms further than would otherwise happen. Only: by characterising this as "manipulation" of the ant, Dudley injects a first, inappropriate intentionality on the part of the nematode; he then reinforces this (as "crazy") by contrasting the worm's proverbial lack of intelligence with the bird's wilyness.

"It's phenomenal that these nematodes actually turn the ants bright red, and that they look so much like the fruits in the forest canopy," said co-author Stephen P. Yanoviak

It simply isn't "phenomenal" that the nematode's presence affects the ant, changing its colour; nor is it at all "phenomenal" that red ants resemble red berries. The only reading of these facts that warrant that adjective is if you're implying: how clever, this sophisticated survival plan that the worms have put into place. And that is clearly nonsense.

Next, it's the journalist's turn to spin the tale:

[...] the biologists quickly suspected that the nematode had found a unique way to guarantee its transmission from ant host to bird host.

Yeah, maybe they puzzled it out over a couple of beers, too. "Found a unique way"? "Guarantee its transmission"? Do I need to elaborate why this is misguided terminology? (As a rule of thumb, the use of the verb 'to evolve' in a transitive/active sense ("This is a really great example of the kinds of complex host-parasite interactions that can co-evolve") is often enough to signal something fishy...)

In a direct demonstration of where such mis-characterisation leads, the photo caption retreads this same ground, even heightening the language a notch:

According to researchers, this is a strategy concocted by nematodes to entice birds to eat the normally unpalatable ant and spread the parasite in their droppings.

"Concocted"? "Entice"? This kind of romancing of complex systems consolidate commonplace misundertandings about the (relatively) simple rules of evolution. There is no agency, there is no plan on behalf of individual creatures (nor indeed on behalf of their entire species) for any sort of betterment, trickery, wilyness or other strategy. It is when the complexities of nature are routinely rendered anecdotally trivial via metaphors and images that are as hackneyed as they are technically wrong - my personal guess is that this sort of lax language originally stems from journalists' habits and agendas - that you will find a populace easily enticed by similarly confused concoctions of language and thought, such as the ID mumbojumbo.
posted by progosk at 2:07 PM on January 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


To be a little more precise: obviously the scientists can't possibly think it's been the worms' clever plan to trick the birds via the ants for their own reproductive ends - but that's what they are saying. You can see the effects of this sloppyness already at work in the article itself, and you can be sure it'll transfer quite nicely to the general (mis)understanding a great majority of readers will glean from it.
posted by progosk at 2:13 PM on January 21, 2008


Oh, and: do allow me to quote you as further collateral:

"...] the degree of acumen with which it takes advantage of other organisms [...]"

Exactly what are you attributing here, and to whom?
posted by progosk at 2:23 PM on January 21, 2008


I'm attributing a sophisticated reproductive mechanism to the nematode species.

I'll grant you that "found" and "concocted" are anthropomorphising language. The rest, I think, is your overactive imagination.

I will certainly agree that speaking anthropomorphically is bad form, even though I would expect most people to understand it's a metaphor. But saying "evolution found" or "evolution concocted" would be equally misleading, in that case.

If that's the kind of stuff you're objecting to I still don't get how you think this caters to ID or Creationism - I mean, in saying that the nematode "found" or "concocted" something, that sounds to me more like it's assuming evolution, rather than assuming God did it. But I think if anything they're trying to avoid saying anything about the origins of any of these traits and maybe letting an impression of evolution slip in.

It simply isn't "phenomenal" that the nematode's presence affects the ant, changing its colour;

Yeah, it is. "Phenomenal" means "an exceptional or otherwise amazing phenomenon" in this context.

To be a little more precise: obviously the scientists can't possibly think it's been the worms' clever plan to trick the birds via the ants for their own reproductive ends - but that's what they are saying.

Up above Rumple was mentioning how they literally called the nematodes "dumb". If someone read through this and concluded that the nematodes arrived at this behavior by deliberating or experimenting the way humans do, I think there's very little hope for them understanding much of what's going on anyways. I doubt that's the audience this is targeted to.
posted by XMLicious at 3:03 PM on January 21, 2008


Maybe another part of what's going on here: in the most straightforward terminology, what is described here is that the nematodes are deceiving the birds. Trying to use neutral and strictly non-anthropomorphic terminology to explain that would result in some pretty opaque language, I think, which someone who would end up believing the nematodes are consciously planning everything might not understand anyways. I think this may be the source of some of the descriptive wording that you find objectionable.
posted by XMLicious at 3:10 PM on January 21, 2008


Erm... XML:

But saying "evolution found" or "evolution concocted" would be equally misleading, in that case.
If that's the kind of stuff you're objecting to I still don't get how you think this caters to ID or Creationism - I mean, in saying that the nematode "found" or "concocted" something, that sounds to me more like it's assuming evolution, rather than assuming God did it. But I think if anything they're trying to avoid saying anything about the origins of any of these traits and maybe letting an impression of evolution slip in.


and earlier:

if these guys started saying something about how this parasite or its behaviors or other characteristics evolved, they'd be making shit up. They can't attribute things to evolution just because they "know evolution is true" or something - science doesn't work that way.

I suspect you might have a rather peculiar (not to say, incomprehensible) idea of what exactly evolution is/means. I also believe this discussion is becoming something of a dialogue des sourds. So, I think I'll let it lie at that.
posted by progosk at 3:15 PM on January 21, 2008


Yeah, I don't think they should be asserting anything about the evolutionary origins of these things if they haven't done any research to that effect. That's why I said that they're "letting it slip in." But if your refuge is to call me incomprehensible go right ahead and be off.
posted by XMLicious at 3:27 PM on January 21, 2008


Here's a good question: if you think that evolution is so deeply embedded in everything they're saying, how would it sound different were these guys Creationist biologists?
posted by XMLicious at 3:32 PM on January 21, 2008


I really can't see anything in the article that suggests or even hints that ID has anything to do with the nematode. It sounds like they're just being figurative, really. I guess a certain subset of people could interpret it that way, but I really don't see how.

Fascinating (and squicky) link, XMLicious.
posted by kryptondog at 5:37 AM on January 23, 2008


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