Climate change | Fish & Wildlife | Ecotrope

Frankenstorms And Zombie Critters

Ecotrope | Oct. 31, 2012 6:25 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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This is the parasitic "zombie" fly that developed from a maggot that crawled out of a dead honeybee on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.

This is the parasitic “zombie” fly that developed from a maggot that crawled out of a dead honeybee on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.

Happy Halloween!

In light of this ghoulish holiday, I thought I’d take a minute to review recent discussions of Frankenstorms, the big weather events that some want to attribute to human-driven climate change, and zombie science, as in what happens when parasites take over the body of a host species.

A lot of people are talking about #Frankenstorms in light of Hurricane Sandy. Is human-driven climate change to blame for the giant storm that tore through the East Coast this week?

If you haven’t already, it’s worth reading Andy Revkin’s take on the connection between climate change and Frankenstorms. He writes about climate change every day on Dot Earth. The way most experts explain the connection between a big weather event and climate science is to say it’s “consistent with” projections of human-driven climate change. Revkin says that’s all you can say about Sandy because of all the natural variability in weather patterns that cause big storms:

“But there remains far too much natural variability in the frequency and potency of rare and powerful storms — on time scales from decades to centuries – to go beyond pointing to this event being consistent with what’s projected on a human-heated planet. … While the echo of Frankenstein in that Twitter moniker can imply this is a human-created meteorological monster, it’s just not that simple.”

Adam Frank at NPR offers an in-depth explanation of how scientists are trying to tie individual weather events more directly to climate change, but concludes that they’re still not ready to make a climate change “attribution” for Hurricane Sandy:

“The science of climate attribution is very exciting and full of cool, new ideas. It has already provided us with first steps towards more precision in understanding how climate change is changing climate now, already. For hurricanes, however, sticking to the science means it is still hard to point to an individual storm and say, yes! Climate change! A more reasoned approach is to take the full weight of our understanding about the Earth and its systems and go beyond asking if any particular event is due to global warming or natural variability.”

He goes on to quote a scientist who says “Nowadays, it’s always an element of both.” In the coverage of Hurricane Sandy, I’ve noticed, many climatologists have been quoted saying climate change affects all storms.

Now for zombie science. I’ve always thought the scariest-looking parasite was the one that eats the tongues off of fish and then lives in the fishes’ mouth:

This isopod attacks fish, eats their tongue and attaches itself to the fish's mouth. It looks creepy, but doesn't seem to harm the fish.

This isopod attacks fish, eats their tongue and attaches itself to the fish's mouth. It looks creepy, but doesn't seem to harm the fish.

But Scientific American has a great story and this slide show detailing some bizarre, hostile, lethal and downright creepy parasite takeovers:

“A spider, seemingly possessed, spins an uncharacterisitic web—just before wasp larvae nesting on its abdomen suck the last nourishing juices from the spider’s dying body and make a cocoon in the weird web.

A worm gets into the brain of a shy, shade-loving snail, compelling it to crawl out of its safe home and into the open where it gets attacked by a bird—which is destined to be the parasite’s next host.

…Although not undead in the strictest sci-fi definition of “zombie,” these captive creatures nonetheless behave as if possessed by a force from beyond. That force, however, is often controlling them from the inside, making the unfortunate hosts do deadly things.”

Maybe you saw this EarthFix story about the “zombees” found in Oregon earlier this year – they’re honeybees that have been infected by a zombie fly, which causes them to leave their hives at night and fly toward nearby lights where they become stranded and eventually die.

There are even parasites that control their hosts from the outside. There’s a wasp that lays its larvae inside a caterpillar. The larvae produces a toxin right before it emerges from the caterpillar that turns the caterpillars into a protector of the wasp larvae as they grow. Some wasps can produce a neurotoxin that nearly paralyzes cockroaches so the wasps can lead the roaches back to their nests and lay eggs inside their live bodies. As the larvae grow, they eat the roach from the inside out.

Scary stuff!

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