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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 1899 Kissing Bug Epidemic That (Probably) Wasn't

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“At night I experienced an attack, & it deserves no less a name, of the Benchuca, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body; before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards round & bloated with blood, & in this state they are easily squashed.”

—Charles Darwin, March 26, 1835

The bug Darwin speaks of is a member of a group colloquially referred to as “kissing bugs.” Scientifically speaking, the “great black bug of the Pampas” was probably a bloodsucker called Triatoma infestans, an insect which is the primary vector of a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi. This parasite causes Chagas disease, a debilitating infection that harms the victim in two stages: an acute phase that begins about a week after the bug bite and causes fever and occasional swelling at the site of the bite, and a chronic phase that shows up as long as 25 years after exposure, where the patient’s organs are irreversibly damaged. Organ damage primarily targets the heart and digestive system.

Chagas disease is endemic throughout South and Central America and Mexico, resulting in about 6 million new cases and 7000 to 12,000 deaths per year. Though still rare, increasingly cases have been diagnosed in the U.S. as well, for two main reasons: movement across borders by infected individuals, bringing T. cruzi with them from endemic countries; and new infections acquired in the U.S., which are extremely rare. The kissing bugs that spread Chagas disease can be found in 28 states, though they’re most common in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, but human bites are rare—the bugs are able to feed on a wide variety of animal species.

While most people may not view kissing bugs as a fearful threat today, that wasn’t the case for a short period in the summer of 1899 when kissing bug hysteria reigned in the U.S., according to a research team led by Melissa Nolan Garcia at Baylor College of Medicine.

By revisiting newspaper and magazine accounts of purported kissing bug bites from 1899, the researchers found that the bugs were blamed, often sight unseen, for a wide variety of bites (and symptoms). But while the "epidemic" may have been overblown, there's something intriguing about this "outbreak." The scientists say it's possible that Chagas may be endemic to the U.S. after all—and this insight may help us better understand the current re-emergence of the disease.

Awareness of the mysterious epidemic began with an article in The Washington Post on June 20, 1899 (“Bite of a strange bug”), eventually resulting in more than 60 articles on the kissing bug epidemic across the country. Reports of the bites were concentrated in the Northeast, with a handful of cases in the Midwest and one each in California and Georgia.

Nolan et al. in PLoS ONE

The original article suggested patients were affected by an “insidious insect that bites without causing pain and escapes unnoticed,” resulting in “the place where it has bitten [swelling] to 10 times its normal size.”

Though most of those bitten recovered without incident, several fatalities were reported, with one noting that the cause of death was the “sting of a kissing bug”—though it should be mentioned the bug was identified by neither the patient nor the coroner. Robert Bartholomew, author of Panic Attacks: The History of Mass Delusion, points out that this was the case for most reports of kissing bug bites and deaths: The bug itself was never seen.

Bartholomew also points out that as the epidemic progressed, the reports became more outrageous. One self-reported victim from Brooklyn said the bug had “a head like a rat and two long ‘fangs’”; a man from New Jersey claimed he was bitten by a bug almost 6 inches long—about six times longer than the average kissing bug. Another from Indiana said a kissing bug dove and attacked his big toe “as if he was boring for oil.”

This is what the T. cruzi parasite that infects kissing bugs looks like.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

They may not have had fangs or been a half-foot long, but were kissing bugs blameless? Government entomologist Dr. L.O. Howard stated in the August 20, 1899 New York Times that the epidemic wasn’t entirely a myth. While he noted that these bugs had been “known to science for 50 to 75 years,” he suggested the bug may be more prevalent in the summer of 1899 due to “climatic conditions favorable to the propagation of the insect.” Temperatures in the Northeast, where most of the reports originated, were 2 to 3°C higher than normal, which could have led to an increase in both kissing bugs and other biting insects.

Howard expanded his thoughts in a Popular Science Monthly article published the same month, where he noted that:

… the so-called "kissing-bug" scare has been based upon certain undoubted cases of the bite of one or the other of them [species of kissing bugs], but that other bites, including mosquitoes, with hysterical and nervous symptoms produced by the newspaper accounts, have aided in the general alarm.

The epidemic of kissing bug attacks may not have been entirely real, Howard wrote, but the epidemic of fear was—and he knew who was to blame: “This happened during one of the temporary periods when newspaper men are most actively engaged in hunting for items. There was a dearth of news. These swollen faces offered an opportunity for a good story, and thus began the 'kissing-bug' scare which has grown to such extraordinary proportions.”

As Garcia and her fellow researchers note, what might be weirdest about the kissing bug hysteria were the cultural influences it elicited. They report that “replicas of the kissing bug became a fashion statement … even criminals used kissing bug encounters as defenses in their legal arguments.” Bartholomew includes in his book kissing bug poetry, penned during the scare:

“Swift, with undiscerning glee
Through the land he goes,
Kissing one upon the lips
Or the chin or nose…
Some of us well know they worth,
Gay philanthropist,
Some of us who but for thee,
Never would be kissed.”

This end-of-the-century flare-up preceded the official identification of the disease by a decade. The cause of Chagas disease wasn't recognized until 1909 by Brazilian physician Carlos Chagas, so there was no way in 1899 to test bitten individuals for the parasite or to recognize kissing bugs' role in transmitting the disease. 

The 1899 epidemic provides a couple of lessons. One, it suggests that Chagas disease may not be a recent import, and emphasizes that the disease’s insect vectors have long been in the country. Second, it provides a lesson in media-driven fear as an epidemic unto itself—something that is only amplified by the internet. Like Charles Darwin—who is suspected of having suffered from Chagas disease—we’re left with mere speculation and hype.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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