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John Kucharski, USDA // Public Domain
John Kucharski, USDA // Public Domain

5 of the Worst Parasites You Can Get—And How to Avoid Them

John Kucharski, USDA // Public Domain
John Kucharski, USDA // Public Domain

No matter who you are, or where you live, you have, at some point in your life, served as the host to a parasite—“any organism that has a relationship with another organism where the first one gets a benefit and the other pays a cost,” Dan Riskin, biologist and expert on the Animal Planet series Monsters Inside Me, tells Mental Floss. “These relationships can be very short—like a mosquito [biting] you and then taking off—or they can last for decades, or your whole life.” 

Ahead of the new season of Monsters Inside Me, which premieres on October 15, we asked Riskin to come up with a list of five parasites you really don’t want to host. When making his picks, Riskin went for the most common and the least common, then filled in with different parasites in between. He wasn’t lacking for creatures to choose from; more than half of the animal kingdom, he says, consists of parasites, which have been “hugely influential in the history of humankind.” Read on to be terrified—and amazed.

1. NEW WORLD SCREWWORM (COCHLIOMYIA HOMINIVORAX)

This nasty little parasite (above) made news in the U.S. last year when it infected a herd of rare Key Deer in the Florida Keys. (That outbreak, thankfully, is over.) These creepy crawlies can infect humans, too—and one such case is featured on the new season of Monsters Inside Me. “This family went to Colombia to volunteer at an orphanage,” Riskin explains. Near the end of the trip, the daughter had gone to a water park and came back with a sore on the side of her head.

“The next day, when they were supposed to fly home, the feces hit the fan,” Riskin says. The sore became incredibly painful and started pussing, and the family had to decide: Should they stay in Colombia or go home? Ultimately, they got on the plane. Once back in the States, they took their daughter to the ER, where she was given a haircut that allowed doctors to see the “mobile larvae,” a.k.a. maggots, in her head.

A female Cochliomyia hominivorax fly had landed on the girl’s head and deposited its eggs in a lesion on her scalp; the eggs soon hatched into nearly 2-centimeter-long maggots that began chomping away. Unlike other parasitic maggots—like botflies, for example—the New World Screwworm does not stay put. These maggots were burrowing into the girl’s skull. “If they hadn’t gotten to it, these things would’ve migrated right down sort of towards her face and out her eyeballs or who knows what,” Riskin says. Thankfully, doctors were able to remove the maggots using a combination of petroleum jelly and bacon therapy (basically, luring the creepy critters out with the smell of bacon and the threat of suffocation).

How to Avoid It: Wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts, applying DEET-based repellents, and sleeping under a mosquito net are your best methods of defense. If you suspect you might be hosting some screwworms, “seek medical attention immediately,” Riskin advises.

2. MALARIA

The malaria parasite.
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According to the CDC, there were 212 million cases of malaria in 2015; 429,000 deaths were caused by the parasite. “You can get it almost anywhere tropical,” Riskin says. “All it takes is a mosquito bite.”

Mosquitos don’t hatch carrying malaria; the bugs pick it up from an infected person. Once inside the mosquito, the malaria parasite takes up residence in the insect’s salivary glands. “When the mosquito bites somebody else, it squirts a little bit of spit into them to help keep the blood flowing—that’s what causes an itching mosquito bite; it’s a reaction to that spit—but they can also be spitting these parasites into the next person,” Riskin says.

In humans, the parasites hang out in cells in the liver, then make their way to red blood cells, which they make explode, spreading more parasites that invade more blood cells. Anyone can get malaria, and people who contract it will experience fever and chills. “It just wreaks havoc on your body,” Riskin says.

The disease is potentially fatal; those who contract malaria and survive might relapse because some species of the parasite can lie dormant in the liver.

How to Avoid It: If you’re going to a country with malaria, consider taking preventative drugs. Otherwise, wear long pants and long sleeves, use DEET-based insect repellents, and sleep under a mosquito net when traveling in the tropics.

3. BRAIN-EATING AMOEBA (NAEGLERIA FOWLERI)

Technically, this amoeba—which can be found in warm, untreated fresh water—isn’t a parasite. “Normally, it’s totally harmless, doing its own thing in the mud, eating whatever it finds there, going about its business, not bugging anybody,” Riskin says. That all changes when a person goes water skiing and gets water harboring N. fowleri violently shoved up their nose.

Now in a new environment, the amoeba resumes eating whatever it can find in the nose. “It makes its way up that olfactory nerve, reproducing and eating, until it hits the brain,” Riskin says. “And once it’s in the brain, it’s game over for the kid that had it shoved up his nose.”

Typically, a victim will begin to show symptoms—which include fever, headache, and vomiting—around five days after infection (although symptoms can appear as early as one day after infection or as late as nine), and will usually die about five days after that. The death rate associated with infection by N. fowleri in the U.S. is 97.2 percent.

That said, getting a brain-eating amoeba is very, very rare: There were 40 infections reported in the U.S. from 2007 to 2016, a rate of four cases per year. (The CDC reports that “36 people were infected by recreational water, 3 people were infected after performing nasal irrigation using contaminated tap water, and 1 person was infected by contaminated tap water used on a backyard slip-n-slide.”) That gives you odds of about 1 in 70 million of contracting a brain-eating amoeba.

How to Avoid It: Basically, just keep water from slamming up your nose. If you plan on engaging in an activity like water skiing during the summer months, “you could wear a nose plug,” Riskin says. “But this is so rare, that might be overkill.”

4. LUNG FLUKES A.K.A. PARAGONIMUS

An adult Paragonimus westermani lung fluke.
CDC, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Humans may find themselves hosting these coffee bean-sized parasites if they’ve eaten raw or undercooked shellfish. As the crab gets digested, the lung fluke larvae are released, and they “move through your body and go all over the place,” Riskin says. Typically, they tear through the abdominal wall and diaphragm to get into the lungs.

People infected with lung flukes may experience abdominal pain and a fever; eventually, they’ll begin to cough up blood laden with eggs. The blood is either spat out or swallowed, allowing eggs to pass in the stool (and, if a host is in water while defecating, the life cycle will continue).

“Our bodies are built to protect us from the environment,” Riskin says, but eating makes us vulnerable. “It’s like if you had a fortress with big stone walls all around it—you still have to get food to the people who live in the fortress. And so, every once in a while, you have to open the gate and let all these ox carts come in and then close the gate. And then, you’ve got to hope that there’s no Trojan horse.”

Untreated, lung flukes can live in the body for 20 years, according to the CDC. Thankfully, once an infection is identified, medication can wipe the infection out.

How to Avoid It: This one’s easy—just don’t eat raw or undercooked shellfish.

5. ELEPHANTIASIS A.K.A. LYMPHATIC FILARIASIS

An elderly man suffering from elephantiasis; one of his legs is much bigger than the other.
NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

This condition is caused by several species of roundworms; like malaria, these roundworms thrive in the tropics and are transmitted by mosquito. Once in your body, the roundworms set up shop in your lymphatic vessels—small, one-way tubes in your body that drain liquid away from tissues—and can live there for decades. “They’re cloaked like a Klingon bird of prey,” Riskin says. “The immune system doesn’t even know they’re there.” At least, not until the worms die.

“Once they’re dead, the cloaking mechanism doesn’t work anymore,” Riskin explains. Then your body’s like, ‘Whoa, we’ve got an invader.’” Your body sends white blood cells to the site where the bodies of the roundworms have piled up. The problem is, their bodies have clogged the very vessels meant to drain the liquid away, causing limbs to swell. “It gets more swollen, and the body sends more fluid, and that area gets puffier,” Riskin says. “This just keeps happening, and there’s no way to drain. The draining system is busted.”

The parasite infected 120 million people in 2000, according to the World Health Organization; 40 million people were disfigured and incapacitated by it. While medications have little effect on adult roundworms, there are drugs to help and prevent transmissions to others: In 2015, the scientists who developed a treatment that could prevent infections for around a year won the Nobel Prize for Medicine (alongside another researcher who developed a novel malaria therapy).

How to Avoid It: This mainly affects people in Africa and Asia, so if you’re traveling there, wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, liberally apply insect repellent, and sleep under a mosquito net.

A new season of Monsters Inside Me begins October 15 at 9 p.m. EST on Animal Planet.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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