"Let's Haunt Their Dreams Forever"

By Carl Zimmer | December 8, 2009 8:04 am

This is good. Parasites have made it to the Colbert Report. It’s no secret that Stephen Colbert is a modern sort of Mr. Wizard (see his stuff on electromagnetism, microbes, and naming new species of spiders). Now Colbert introduces the nation, nay, the world, to a fish parasite that plays the part of the fish tongue.

I must, however, correct one thing Colbert said. This parasite has been in the news recently thanks to some awesome photographs of a recently caught infected fish. But that doesn’t mean this is the first time anybody ever saw one of these things. Matthew Gilligan of Savannah State University and Richard Brusca of the Desert Museum described the species (not a fish, by the way, but an isopod–think giant lice from hell) back in 1983. And I think I was the first to bring its special horror to the general audience in my book Parasite Rex. Nevertheless, I’m delighted to see Cymothoa exigua hitting the big time (the Colbert Report, at least) at last.

Here’s the clip:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Craziest F#?king Thing I’ve Ever Heard – Tongue-Eating Parasite
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

Comments (6)

  1. Barry Roth

    Remember as a kid pier fishing, catching — oh, I don’t remember, shiner perch? — of which maybe half had a pale cream-colored isopod on the floor of their mouth. Possibly a stage on the route toward evolution of the pseudo-tongue thing? My chums and I, budding biologists, found it interesting. Much grosser were the knotted-up, liver-colored roundworms in the otherwise succulent, white flesh of jacksmelt.

  2. David Fishman

    Don’t forget the posting of a year ago: would you rather have an isopod lodged next to your eye? I guess so…


  3. I wonder if this relationship is wholly parasitic or if there are some unseen benefits to the host (individually or to the entire species).

    When Carl spoke in Denver last week I wanted to ask a question at the end about theories of virulence wrt H1N1 but might be able to describe it in this context too. In the case of C. exigua there may be some conflicting needs. It probably doesn’t want to eat all the food or it won’t have a home to live in (unless replacement hosts are readily available). So I imagine that anything it does to improve its host’s health might improve its own survival under the right circumstances.

    About the only possibility I can imagine here is if this parasite is able to eat certain things that are otherwise harmful to the host. Also, does the parasite’s excrement serve as food source or are all nutrients lost on the first digestion? I’ll go read more to see if I can find any answers.

    I recently wrote about my understanding of ecological relationships in response to a lot of things I learned in Parasite Rex. Since then a friend introduced me to the concept of Amensalism which lead to the discovery of this wikipedia page on biological interactions.

  4. I wonder whether ThinkGeek.com could be conned into making a tongue sleeve for Halloween. Something that looked like one of these beasties. Would be uncomfortable to wear, but would be a great conservation starter (if you could talk). Fun for lectures, too!

  5. Just purchased Parasite REX and I can’t wait for it to arrive! It’s been on my wishlist for way too long.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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