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We have had a lot of excitement the last couple of weeks, what with Halloween and the midterm election.  Let’s relax a little bit with [checks notes] the horrifying story of a dare gone wrong which lead to the tragic death of a young man? What?? Who chooses this content? Gah!

Well, anyway, this story comes from Australia where, in 2010, teenager Sam Ballard was hanging out with his mates (which is what Australians call friends) and drinking some wine when a small garden slug crawled across his friend’s patio.  In a manner instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with teenage boys, the young men jokingly dared one another to eat the tiny mollusk, and, to show them up, Sam gulped down the tiny creature.  This proved to be an irreversible, fatal error.  Soon Sam’s legs began to hurt and then he fell into a coma for more than a year.  Sam regained consciousness but he was paralyzed and subject to a host of dreadful ailments which ultimately killed him a few days ago.

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There may be a moral to this sad horror story (particularly in the States where, in 2016, 46.4% of the electorate made a seemingly trivial– albeit disgusting–choice which is paralyzing and killing our nation), however there is certainly a scientific explanation.  Slugs can carry rat lungworm disease which is caused by a parasitic nematode called Angiostronjilus cantonensis (crustaceans and frogs can carry the worm as well).  In the happy normal course of existence, the slugs, crabs, and frogs (and thus the nematodes) are eaten by rats which develop lungworm infection in, you know, their lungs.  They excrete droppings infected with lungworms which in turn are eaten by slugs and small invertebrates which are then eaten by rats and frogs. This nematode was originally indigenous to Southeast Asia and nearby Pacific Islands, however as the climate changes and humans move around (taking rats and nematodes with us, apparently) the microscopic worms have spread to Australia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States.

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I enjoy nature and have a deep appreciation of ecosystems and all of their diverse inhabitants, yet somehow the preceding paragraph makes me want to burn away rats, frogs, slugs, and nematodes with cleansing fire and live like Howard Hughes.  Speaking of fire, if you must eat rats, frogs, garden slugs, small invertebrates, or nematodes,  you should thoroughly cook them first.  I guess that is a really useful and ancient pro tip for success in life.

There is a bigger reason I am telling this upsetting story though.  Strange microscopic bits of one ecosystem have a way of getting into other ecosystems and causing complete havoc. Rat lungworms don’t even really have anything to do with humans, but when mistakenly consumed by us, they do not end up in our lungs but instead in our brains (btw, this is bad news for the nematodes too, which are unable to complete their natural revolting nightmare life-cycle).

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Paleontologists have long speculated that this sort of mix-up is a factor in many mass die-offs and other large scale extinction events.  Fossil evidence for such things however is exiguous, so they have to look for analogous situations in the modern world (like the case of poor Sam Ballard) or go digging in the genomes of modern living organisms.  These genomes often do carry information about a long strange history of fighting off weird viruses, pathogens, and microscopic invaders, but it is not easy to figure out the specifics within the Rube Goldberg-style world of immune cell epigenetics. Zookeepers and stockpeople (and their veterinary pathologists), however, know all about these sorts of dark misconnections from horrible sad incidents which happen all the time in farms and zoos.  I suppose I am bringing this up because I suspect that climate change, near instant international travel, and modern supply chains, will continue to amplify the problem (I have touched base concerning this in my essays about parasitoid wasps, but these may be a touch abstract, so I am telling Sam Ballard’s story).

We could spend more time and money understanding biology properly to get ahead of these trends (which will be greatly magnified in any synthetic ecosystems which we build on Earth or beyond), or we could continue with our current choice of giving all of our resources to corrupt billionaires to hoard.  While we ponder that choice, let us extend our deepest condolences to the Ballards for their terrible loss.  I am also going to clean my kitchen with bleach and maybe take a shower.

 

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