Featured Creature Friday: The Tongue-Eating Louse

I threw you an easy pitch last week with the Kakapo. It was cute and fluffy, as promised, and the worst thing it does really is shag the heads of eminent conservationists. But now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, I think it’s time to return to the world of general horror and creatures that will keep you up at night, dreaming the sort of dreams that make you stop breathing and occasionally wet yourself. And the place you need to look for that sort of experience is of course in the water, which as far as I can tell is occupied by nothing but animals that want to make you cry like a little girl. (I know what you’re thinking. Dolphins, right? Dolphins are made out of fun and joy! Well, dolphins murder things for fun and also they’re baby-killing rapists, so there’s that illusion shattered. You’re welcome.)

photo by Matthew R. Gilligan, Savannah State University / public domain

Luckily, in times like these, there’s Cymothoa exigua: the tongue-eating louse. It is exactly what it the name implies: it is a parasite that eats tongues. But it’s worse than that. Oh, friends, it is so much worse than that. Because what it does is it takes up residence inside a fish’s mouth (by crawling in through the gills), kills the fish’s tongue (it actually drinks all the blood from it and the tongue atrophies; the louse doesn’t actually eat it), and then it attaches itself to the stump and pretends to be the fish’s tongue. And the fish, poor bastard, doesn’t appear to know any better; because the parasite is attached to what remains of the tongue, it can actually use the thing like it is a tongue. It’s the only known parasite that actually functionally replaces a host organ. You’d think that maybe it would use this advantageous new position to take a cut of the fish’s food, like some sort of a louse mafia, but no… it’s feeding on either the fish’s blood or its delicious fish mucus (whatever fish mucus is). Now I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned that makes this thing the most psychopathic parasite ever. If it could talk, undoubtedly the only thing it would say is, “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again!”

That’s about all there is to the tongue-eating louse. I don’t have any interesting reproductive facts or fascinating tidbits for you. It pretends to be a fish’s tongue. Really that alone is quite enough.

If you enjoy these features (and who doesn’t enjoy a good tongue-eating louse?) I want to point you to an excellent blog: The Proceedings of the Ever so Strange. They’ve even got a blog about the tongue-eating louse with even more horrifying pictures! The things they post about there are ever so strange, and extend to more than just creatures, so even when it’s not Friday you can learn something terrifying about your world!

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Featured Creature Friday: The Erudite Echidna

Featured Creature Fridays are a new feature here on the Red Roan Chronicles blog… check back every Friday for new weird and wonderful facts about creatures you may or may not know. Let me know what you think, and if you’ve got a featured creature suggestion, post them in the comments!

Today I’m going to introduce you to a bizarre and wonderful creature called an echidna. If you’re anything like me, you’re aware of the existence of the echidna, but unaware of just how remarkably strange they are. (This is true of many things in Australia, but one of the nice things about echidnas is that unlike practically everything else in Australia, they are neither poisonous nor deadly.)

The echidna is a cute little spiny creature, sort of like the bastard lovechild of a hedgehog and an anteater. It borrows bits of its physiology from birds, reptiles, marsupials and mammals. It has multiple sets of sex chromosomes. It probably even knows Barry Manilow’s entire catalog by heart. Behold, the erudite echidna:

The short-beaked echidna of Australia...

And the magnificent long-beaked echidna of New Guinea. Photos under public license from Wikipedia.

Aside from looking like the type of animal I’d really like to raise and train as some form of battle-beast — perhaps I could find a way to breed giant-sized echidnas and ride them into war! — the echidna is a rare and wonderful bundle of weird wrapped up in bizarre with a delicious topping of awesomesauce. For a start, the echidna is a monotreme — it’s a mammal, but it doesn’t give birth to live young, it lays eggs instead. The only other living monotreme is the platypus — we might get to that one later, but it seems a little cliché by now, so we’ll see. The echidna also has the most amazing and adorable skeletal structure. How can skeletons be adorable? I don’t know, and I didn’t think it was possible before I saw this echidna skeleton.

Photo by Sklmsta, under public commons license, by way of Wikipedia.

If there was a way for me to reanimate the skeleton of an echidna and take it for walks around my neighborhood on a leash, like something out of a Tim Burton film, I would do it. Just look at that thing. LOOK AT IT.

But we were talking about eggs, which leads us to echidna reproduction, which is where things get really strange. Echidnas like to form “mating trains,” where the hopeful males follow females around for days in a long “train” of echidnas up to 11 individuals long, and they do this for literally months on end, until the female is ready to mate with one of them. Or possibly several of them; apparently echidnas are “promiscuous.” They’re also only the second animal known to mate during hiberation periods or to reenter hiberation after mating. (There’s a quote in that link that says, “Thus the echidna mating system appears to be characterised by roving promiscuous males which guard promiscuous females before and after mating.” Oh science, you’re so sexy.) So basically, sometimes male echidnas wait until the females are hibernating, then they mate with them, guard them from other males, and thus increase their chances of successful paternity. Not cool, male echidnas.

When the female is ready to mate, she digs herself in at the base of a plant and waits for some action. All those males, meanwhile, dig a sort of circle-shaped rut in the ground around her, then use it as an arena to battle for her love, shoving each other out of the way until somebody emerges as the victor. So they sort of create echidna crop circles. But without the crop part. And with echidnas.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that stuff’s not all that weird. Well hold on, people, because shit’s about to get real. Among the male echidna’s reproductive adaptations is a penis with a “quadripartite anemone-like appearance.” What does that mean, exactly? It means he has a four-pronged penis. When he mates, he uses two of them in the female’s two-forked reproductive tract. Then when he finds himself another woman, his other two penii are already ready to go. Also, he shoots “semen bundles.” Aren’t you just freaking fascinated right now? I hope you are, because there’s video. Of course there’s video. Science is taking advantage of all the latest advancements in technology to bring you more detailed information about the echidna and its penis.

The female gives birth to her egg directly into her pouch, where the egg gestates and eventually hatches a baby that’s called a “puggle.” I’m not going to show you a picture of a puggle yet. I don’t think you’re ready. It’ll come when you’re prepared to handle it. First, I’m going to tell you about echidna nipples. They don’t have any. So you might be wondering how on earth this amazing new puggle is meant to sustain itself. Luckily, female echidnas do have “milk patches” right their in their pouches, where milk essentially seeps out of their pores (echidnas have pores, apparently!) for the puggle to lap up. Genius. Once the puggle starts developing spines, the mom’s all, “Screw this, I’m not keeping this pointy thing in my pouch anymore,” and she digs a nursery burrow and leaves her puggle there, coming back to feed it every five days or so until it’s weaned, which takes about seven months.

So, have you prepared yourself? Are you ready? Have you reached a point in your life where you need to see what a baby echidna looks like? I hope so. Because if you’re not prepared, the cuteness of a puggle can be dangerous.

Echidna can be found in Australia and New Guinea. The short-beaked echidna found in Australia prefers a diet of ants; the larger long-beaked echidna, in Australia, uses a long beak to hunt for worms underground. It doesn’t just lap them up with a long tongue, though. It spears them like it’s harpooning Moby Dick. The long-beaked echidna therefore is the obvious choice for a personal guard and attack animal. I mean, if you have a worm problem.

Well folks, that’s our first Featured Creature Friday. I hope you’ll share these fascinating facts about echidna reproduction with all of your friends and loved ones, so that they might be better prepared when I unleash my army of ravenous trained attack-echidna upon the world. Stay tuned for next Friday, when I’ll be introducing you to another bizarre inhabitant of our planet. Like, even more bizarre than this one. But hopefully with more conservative sexual proclivities, because come on, echidnas. You’re just getting out of control, now.

Want to learn some more about echidnas? Like ones that actually cite sources and are all scientific and whatnot? I thought you might. Here are a few links for you!

Echidna Love Trains – Nature Features at ABC Science

Brainy Echidna Proves Looks Aren’t Everything at The New York Times

San Diego Zoo’s Animal Bytes: Echidna