At the blog Parasite of the Day, http://dailyparasite.blogspot.com, you can find information on everything from a zombie ant fungus to toothed leeches that feed on human noses. “It’s a labor of love,” says blog administrator Susan Perkins, associate curator and professor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She runs the site with fellow scientist Tommy Leung.
Q. Why should we care about parasites? The stories of some of these creatures aren’t exactly breakfast reading.
A. Since probably half of all the organisms on the planet are parasites ... we can get the word out about how cool, diverse – and sometimes a little creepy, a little gross – but really fascinating anything we can call a parasite is. There are a suite of parasites that affect human health ... so the more we know about them, the better.
Q. Are there new parasites being discovered?
A. Every day. People like to make these guesstimates of what percentage of parasites we don’t know about. The numbers usually are that we know about 5 percent to 10 percent of all parasite species, and that’s not bacterial or viral (parasites).
Q. Are scientists worried about conserving parasites?
A. Definitely. Part of it is plain old biodiversity and causing species to go extinct before we even know what they are. Also, parasites are important regulators in ecosystems. If no host had parasites, they would quickly outreproduce for their environment.
Q. We’re hearing more about how eliminating human parasites may be accelerating allergies. What’s the balance?
A. I’ve heard from people who have started hookworm therapy – people with chronic autoimmune issues who really like it and feel they are getting great benefit from it. The way a lot of doctors and biologists like to say it is our immune systems are bored and they have nothing to interact with so they react to nonlethal things like a pollen grain or cat hair. I definitely avoid using antibacterial products. It’s overkill.
Q. What’s your “favorite” parasite?
A. I work on malaria but mostly in lizards, bats and turtles. So there’s a few favorites in there I always get excited to see. And of course there are bunch of cool ones, like the poster children for parasites, like Leucochloridium paradoxum, which gets inside a snail and makes its antenna get so huge that birds come down and eat it.