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Invasion of the Zombie Animals

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Mother Nature is not usually kind. There are creatures, usually tiny creatures, that will take over a member of another species. They will invade their host's bodies, their brains, and even their will. They turn their much-larger victims into zombies!

1. Zombie Snails -Induced Vulnerability

The flatworm Leucochloridium paradoxum infects two different animals in its lifetime, but only controls one of them. It lives its adult life inside birds and its eggs are spread by bird excretion. How does it get inside the birds? That's the horror story. Amber snails eat the eggs, which hatch in the snail's digestive tract. The larva changes into sporocysts (or broodsacs), which elongate and invade the snail's tentacles atop its head. The broodsacs, filled with hundred of Leucochloridium paradoxum, pulsate and seek light. The snail is helpless to retract its tentacles, and has lost its ability to perceive light and therefore does not hide. The inflated tentacles move like worms, attracting birds that bite off the tentacles. The flatworms then develop into the adult stage inside the bird. The snail, however, is left to die -or to undergo the process again.

2. Zombie Crabs -Slave Governess

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A barnacle named Sacculina wants to nest inside a crab. A female Sacculina will look for a place to enter the crab's body. When it does, it will leave its shell behind, not needing it anymore as it has the crab! Inside, Sacculina sets up shop, growing tendrils through the crab's body and slowly feeding on it. It castrates the crab (if male) and effectively turns the crab into a female nanny for its young. This makes the crab not only infertile but also uninterested in mating. The barnacle, on the other hand, bores a hole open in the crab's shell big enough to let male Sacculina in to mate. The zombie crab treats the Sacculina eggs and larvae as its own, having lost the will to do anything but serve its parasite master. Image credit: Hans Hillewaert.

3. Zombie Caterpillars -Slave Bodyguard

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Glyptapanteles is a wasp that lays its eggs in the body of a caterpillar. This is a three layered parasitic infection. The wasps engage the help of a virus, or more accurately a polydnavirus that has been genetically modified by the wasps, to disable the caterpillar's immune system, allowing the wasp eggs to survive. The relationship between the wasps and the virus is mutually beneficial; only the caterpillars get the short end of the stick. The eggs hatch and feed on the caterpillar, but do not kill it. Instead, the caterpillar stops developing and spends the rest of its life protecting the wasp larva, even going as far as spinning its own cocoon around the wasp pupae. Watch a video of the entire process. When the adult wasp emerges from its cocoon, the zombie caterpillar finally tastes the sweet release of death.

4. Zombie Grasshoppers -Induced Suicide

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The parasitic hairworm Spinochordodes tellinii is deadly to grasshoppers. Once eaten by a grasshopper or cricket, the larval worm produces proteins that affect the insect's brain and nervous system. By the time the worm reaches adulthood, the insect is completely under its power. The zombie grasshopper commits suicide by jumping into water, where the worm will emerge and look for a mate.

5. Zombie Fish -Luring Its Killer

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The parasitic worm Euhaplorchis californiensis infects three other species in a cycle, and alters the behavior of two of them. First, the eggs are consumed by horn snails. While living inside a snail, sometimes for several generations, Euhaplorchis inhibits the snail's fertility. The parasite will eventually leave the snail and infect the gills of a killifish. The worms will surround the fish's brain and cause it to swim near the surface and wiggle around. This makes the fish more likely to be eaten by a bird, which is what Euhaplorchis wanted in the first place. The digestive system of a bird is where the worm lays its eggs, which are excreted onto the beach where snails can reach them.

6. Zombie Ants -Serving the Impostors

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Even butterflies can make other species into zombies! Maculina rebeli, a European butterfly, lay eggs that exude the scent of ant queens. Worker ants welcome them into their colony. The butterflies emerge as caterpillars which are fed by the ants. The ants treat them as their own young, or even better than ordinary ant larvae since they perceive the caterpillars to be queen ant larvae. Worker ants will even defend the caterpillars against their own queen! You may think of ants as zombies already, but they normally only serve their own species.

7. Zombie Fish Tongue -Artificial Organ

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Cymothoa exigua is a small crustacean found off the coast of California. You don't have to worry about it unless you are a spotted rose snapper. C. exigua invades the mouth of these fish and grabs onto the base of the tongue, pinching off the blood supply and drinking it. As the tongue atrophies, the fish begins to use the little isopod as a replacement tongue. Meanwhile, C. exigua lives its life inside the fish's mouth, drinking blood and fish slime from the tongue's stump. Other than the loss of its tongue, the fish suffers little from the experience, so the two can share a normal, if creepy, lifespan.

8. Zombie Cockroach -Commandeered Nursery

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The Emerald Cockroach Wasp (Ampulex compressa) makes a slave out a much larger cockroach. The wasp will sting the roach twice, paralyzing its front legs and taking the escape reflex away from its brain. Then the wasp will chew off half of the roach's antennae and uses what's left to steer the roach to a prepared nest. The wasp lays an egg on the roach's abdomen and leaves. The egg will hatch and feed off the roach, which still won't try to escape. The wasp larvae keeps the docile roach alive long enough to build a cocoon inside the roach's body and transform into an adult wasp. An adult female wasp can enslave and lays eggs on several dozen zombie roaches.

chestburster.jpgAre there organisms that will have effects like this on human behavior? I believe there may be, but the voices in my head tell me they are a secret.

Update: Also see the sequel to this post, 7 More Zombie Animals

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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good
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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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