Science - Nature
By: - at June 10, 2013

15 Creatures You Never Knew Were Parasites

Parasites are vile creatures who feed off the lives and blood of others. The initial myths and lore surrounding vampires drew off the general fears and perceptions of parasites. Even today, they are not well received, and why should they be. Parasites can kill their hosts, and they rarely ever leave them better off than when they first arrived. The most horrifying part of their conduct is that they can sometimes kill their hosts before the hosts even realize the parasite was there.

Ancylostoma caninum - Type of Hookworm Attached to Intestinal Mucosa
Ancylostoma caninum - Type of Hookworm Attached to Intestinal Mucosa

The fact is, though, that parasites are everywhere. It's an effective means of survival, and there are many that you never even knew existed or that were actually parasites, especially these 15 parasites here.

15)  Vampire Bats
Speaking of vampires, the vampire bat is a creature that most people don't realize is a parasite. A common misconception about parasites is that they must be attached and immobile on the host. While some scientists insist that only true parasites can be defined as those that live on the host, others, such as the authors of "Vampire Bats Among Us" state that the vampire bat demonstrates all of the necessary indicators needed to be a parasite with that exception.

Vampire Bat of South America
Vampire Bat of South America

Given that they also transmit some of the same bacteria and viruses that a regular parasite does and that they often return to the same victim, the vampire bat is at least dangerous enough to be a pseudo parasite.

Vampire Bat Drinking Blood
Vampire Bat Drinking Blood

Generally speaking, though, it does not like people as much as it likes horses and cows. Unlike its Transylvanian vampire cousins, the vampire bat prefers to feed near the hooves of its victims rather than the neck. It bites into the victim and begins to lap the blood up. In some cases, it will bite people. According to National Geographic, it has been documented as returning to its victims. A series of vampire bats can actually kill a single animal if they all try to feed.

14)  Candiru Fish
The candiru fish is a small fish that lives in the Amazon. In fact, it was recently the subject of numerous conservation efforts in Brazil. The surprising discovery after the conservation efforts succeeded, though, was that the Candiru Fish was actually the dreaded vampire fish. Yes, vampires again.

candiru fish urethra invading parasite

The candiru fish is a tiny fish. It rarely exceeds a few inches, but it loves human urine. According to National Geographic, this tiny fish uses the scents and tastes of urea and ammonia to track its prey. It then follows it. If the prey turns out to be a fish, then the candiru forces its way into the gills. It then shoots its spines into the gills and severs the primary blood vessel. From there, it drinks straight from the major artery until the fish dies and the candiru fish forces its way out of the rotting flesh to find another host.

candiru fish urethra invading parasite

What makes the candiru fish so horrifying, however, is that, according to "Horrifying Creatures," the candiru fish actually prefers human urine. If it smells the urine, it tracks it down. From there, it will then leap to the source. This is how it got its other nickname, according to the penis fish. It can jump high enough to enter the penis. From there, it shoots out its spines and begins forcing its way up the penis.

X-Ray of Patient with a Candiru Fish Inside of His Penis and Pelvic Region
X-Ray of Patient with a Candiru Fish Inside of His Penis and Pelvic Region

The fish will remain in the penis until it dies or until the host dies. The only way to remove it is through surgery. In most cases, successful removal can only be accomplished by removing the part of the penis in which the fish resides.

13)  Stone Fish
National Geographic performed an in-depth spread on the stone fish. It is one of Australia's more unusual fishes, living along the Great Barrier Reef. The stonefish prefers to live at the bottom of the reef, and it does not give any indications of its presence. It can function as both a parasite and as a natural predator. According to "The World's Strangest Creatures," the stonefish actually does not hunt its food. It just lays still and allows shrimp and small fish to wander in. Then it sucks them down. When a human or a large fish comes by, the scenario is quite different.

Stone Fish

However, the stonefish has another method of getting food. If anything comes too close, it shoots up 13 venomous spines. If it shoots them up properly, it remains attached to the host for an extended period of time or until death. Most people cannot survive if they do not receive treatment within two hours and if they do not get the stonefish removed and assistance. The spines simultaneously shoot in poison while the stonefish feeds. In most cases, human victims are able to lurch free, but this does not mean that they are not out of danger.

Stone Fish on Display at Mote Marine Laboratory
Stone Fish on Display at Mote Marine Laboratory
By Will Pittenger via Wikimedia Commons

The pain itself continues on, and death can occur within a short period, preceded by nausea, seizures, paralysis, and more. Since its primary location is in the shallow warm waters of the beaches and at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef, it is a pretty big threat for many swimmers. If you step on one, seek medical attention immediately.

12)  Guinea Worm
Guinea worms love humans. In fact, they love them so much that they prefer humans to any other kind of prey. The problem is the effect that they have on humans. The guinea worm starts its life cycle as a very tiny larva. It is actually small enough that it can live on the water flea. In fact, that's how it gets its start. It feeds off another parasite. What generally happens is that the water flea gets swallowed by a host. The water flea is digested, but the guinea worm can withstand the acidic conditions of the human stomach. In fact, it thrives in them.

Guinea Worms can Spread Throughout the Body Often Infecting the Feet
Guinea Worms can Spread Throughout the Body Often Infecting the Feet

The guinea worm begins to burrow through the stomach. It's hard to say where it will end up according to "The Survival Guide." What does happen, though, is that it starts to grow. It's overall a very unpleasant experience. It continues to grow throughout its entire lifespan. Some of the longest have been longer than the host is tall. Most of the time, though, they stop at about two or three feet. According to National Geographic, the guinea worm is one of the few parasites that come with a readymade escape technique when targeting human prey. It burrows down to the foot or to the surface of the skin at some point.

life cycle of guinea worm disease

Then it wraps its body around and starts to form an abscess. This abscess begins burning. The common response is to plunge the burning area into fire. At that point, the guinea worm ruptures through the host and releases its spawn out into the water. There they latch onto water fleas. The guinea worm generally dies shortly after this, though, they may try to escape.

11)  Lonomia Caterpillar
The Lonomia Caterpillar lives throughout South America, and it has gained a reputation as one of the scourges in Latin America, according to Reuters. Unlike most caterpillars, this particular one doesn't care how it gets its food. It will gladly eat whatever it finds, and it will also latch on and pump out poison while absorbing its prey.

Taturana (Lonomia oblliqua) - Venomous Variety of the Lonomia Caterpillar Family
Taturana (Lonomia oblliqua) - Venomous Variety of the Lonomia Caterpillar Family

According to National Geographic, the biggest problem with the Lonomia Caterpillar is what the venom does. The venom creates burns throughout the body. It also starts headaches as well as nausea, but the biggest problem is that the venom creates internal hemorrhaging. More advanced stages include hematuria and ecchymosis. This means that you will start bleeding in your urine and bleeding beneath your skin. At the same time, the venom prevents the blood from clotting, and it eventually moves on to attack and shut down the kidneys.

Strategy Used in Exploring Lonomia obliqua Venom Based on Cellular Approach
Strategy Used in Exploring Lonomia obliqua Venom Based on Cellular Approach

What makes this even worse is that this beautiful little caterpillar does not even have to come in contact with you. When it feels threatened, it starts launching spines. A single spine that breaks the skin can cause these problems. The blood loss and pain is truly horrific, and some are calling it the Caterpillar Scourge.

10)  Tongue Crab
The tongue crab is similar to the tongue eating sea louse. This strange parasite prefers tongues to just about anything else. It starts off by finding a fish that it likes. Red snappers are among the preferred choices. It forces its way in through the gills, and then it latches on to the main arteries of the tongue. As the crustacean grows, it consumes more and more blood. At the same time, the fish's tongue continues to atrophy.

Tongue Crab and its Current Host
Tongue Crab and its Current Host
By Marco Vinci via Wikimedia Commons

This results in the tongue eventually falling off. As soon as this happens, the tongue crab attaches its body to the tongue muscles of the snapper. The snapper uses the tongue crab like a regular tongue, and the two continue on together for the rest of their lives.

Close-up of the Tongue Crab
Close-up of the Tongue Crab
By Marco Vinci via Wikimedia Commons

The tongue crab is considered one of the more horrifying parasites because it gives no indication of its presence. Apparently, this process does not trigger responses from the pain receptors. Additionally, the creature has started to spread. According to the Tree Hugger, a newspaper, occurrences have increased and spread, and there have been sightings even on the shores of New Jersey.

9)  Australian Paralysis Tick
Everyone knows that creatures with red eyes should be avoided at all costs. The Australian paralysis tick is one such example. This tiny parasite is quite abundant in the Australian underbrush. The problem that comes from this is that it paralyzes its victims so that it can eat them in peace. The even bigger problem is that it prefers humans whenever it can get them.

Australian Paralysis Tick Before and After Feeding
Australian Paralysis Tick Before and After Feeding
By Bjorn Christian Torrissen via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists still don't know why paralysis is used. After all, no tick could really consume all of the blood in a dog or a human. In fact, paralyzing the victim would seem to result in a lesser level of food. After all, the host will eventually die. This doesn't keep the Australian paralysis tick from doing so anyway. The one spot of good news is that only the female can administer the poison.

Adult Female Paralysis Tick
Adult Female Paralysis Tick
By Norbert Fischer via Wikimedia Commons

It does this through what is known as a barbed hypostome. This basically looks like a multi-pronged serrated blade. Medical treatment is essential. If you can find one before paralysis, then you should get to a doctor immediately. The venom takes awhile to paralyze the victim, and you will have the best chance of rehabilitation if you get to the doctor.

8)  Suicide Worm
The suicide worm is one of the stranger parasites. It looks like a small earthworm. Nothing strange about it so far. It's actual name is the horsehair worm, but the surprising fact about it is that it prefers grasshoppers. Its favorite thing to do with grasshoppers is to make them commit suicide. The horsehair worm attacks anything it can, but it is the most effective on grasshoppers. The suicide worm lays its eggs in the water. The grasshopper then drinks the water and consumes the eggs. The eggs hatch inside the grasshopper's stomach. The worm itself consumes all of its siblings. From there, it grows.

Suicide Worm
By Dbenzhuser via Wikimedia Commons

The suicide worm becomes significantly larger. In fact, it can fill the entire stomach of the grasshopper. The grasshopper would eventually die anyway because of malnutrition, but before this can ever happen, the suicide worm starts releasing chemicals that force the grasshopper to become suicidal. The primary impulse is that the suicide worm forces the grasshopper into the nearest body of water. Once in the water, the suicide worm ruptures through the grasshopper's body, generally through the anus. Then it finds a mate and prepares for a family.

7)  The Naegleria Fowleri
The Naegleria Fowleri is a amoebal parasite. In fact, it is one of the smallest in the world, but it is also one of the deadliest. It too prefers humans whenever it can get them. It is found in many bodies of water, including swimming pools. No one is quite sure where they come from. What they do know is that they are brain eaters who prefer teenagers.

Life Cycle of Parasitic Agents Responsible for Causing "free-living" Amebic Infections
Life Cycle of Parasitic Agents Responsible for Causing "free-living" Amebic Infections

These brain eating parasites swim through the water and wait at the bottom of the source. Once something splashes in, it tries to get up to the victim's nose. For whatever reason, the parasite prefers teenagers, according to CBS. It only takes one to start an infection. The amoeba works its way into the brain. Then it begins eating the brain. Death generally results within two weeks. The only symptoms are headaches and fevers.

Naegleria fowleri Lifecycle Stages
Naegleria fowleri Lifecycle Stages

Hallucinations follow, but it is generally an indication of advanced stages and imminent death. Successful treatment requires an actual diagnosis, but, according to "Medical Mysteries," doctors aren't even sure whether their treatment methods would work. Most of the time, the naegleria fowleri is only discovered after an autopsy.

The Naegleria Fowleri kills teen

6)  Filarial Worm
The Elephant Man was once thought to be a fictional character. History and research has shown that it was actually a disease that gave the Elephant Man his distinctive appearance. That disease and the effects of the filarial worm are one and the same. The filarial worm is the bringer of elephantiasis.


The filarial worm lives off mosquitoes. They actually live in the venom sacs that the mosquito uses when it bites victims and pumps in its venom. While waiting, it lives off the mosquito. The mosquito then becomes the inadvertent injector of the filarial worm. The filarial worm thrives in all creatures that the mosquito's bite can penetrate. It begins to work its way through the body as it matures until it reaches the lymphatic system.

From there, it releases its own eggs and then the horror begins to happen. All of the little worms break out of their eggs and begin to work their way through the lymphatic system and lymph nodes. Eventually, it blocks them entirely.

filariasis stages

Once the lymph nodes are blocked, all of the body's vessels begin to enflame. The obstruction can continue until the body literally explodes, but more importantly, it causes grotesque and massive swellings. The swelling primarily affects the genitals and the legs. This is both excruciating and debilitating. Treatment requires extensive and vigorous cleansing to fully remove the worms. According to the Lymphatic Filarisis Elimination Program, eradication may require surgical treatment, but the best way to treat it is through a vaccination that is currently in development.

5)  Sacculina
The sacculina is actually a strange barnacle that is also a parasite. Barnacles are typically those things that you see hanging on the undersides of boats. The female sacculina is not so innocuous. It actually waits until a male crab comes by and then it attacks. However, this particular parasite wants sex and dinner.

Sacculina Barnacle (Highlighted) on a Female Swimming Crab
Sacculina Barnacle (Highlighted) on a Female Swimming Crab
By Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons

The first thing that the female sacculina does is feed off the crab until she gets her strength up. Then she forces herself into the male crab. From there, she sterilizes him and cuts off his genitals. After that, she forces hormonal changes through her bites as she continues to feed on him. These hormonal changes make the crab appear to be female. The male sacculina follows a similar pattern except that it does not strip off the male crab's genitals. It sets up its location on the genitals and waits to see a male crab that houses a female sacculina. While the two crabs mate, the sacculinas do their business, and then release the eggs into the ocean. This is one of the stranger parasitic behaviors, according to National Geographic, but it is highly effective.

Sacculina and Young

Sacculina and Young

Researchers at the Oceanography Institute of Florida have been able to document the migratory patterns of the barnacles, and they estimate that approximately 4% of crabs have sacculinas.

4)  Snail Eye Worm
Snail Eye WormThe snail eye worm fortunately does not want humans. Its actual preference is birds. The problem is that generally starts out in piles of feces. It waits there until a snail comes and eats it. However, the snail eye worm can survive the snail's digestive system. It goes up into the snail's eyestalks, and from there, it changes the eyestalks' appearances. Generally, it changes them so that they look like two caterpillars waving. This makes the snail more appealing to birds. It does this by creating inflammation and swelling so that the snail cannot retract its eyestalks. Most of the time, according to National Geographic, snails keep their eyestalks heavily guarded and tight inside. By the time that the snail eye worm is done, the snail cannot retract both of its eyestalks. In most cases, according to "Bizarre Parasites," the snail eye worm inhabits one of the eyestalks, allowing the snail eye worm to hide at least one.

A bird eventually spots the eyestalk that looks like a caterpillar, and it snatches it up. The snail eye worm is then ingested, but it survives this consumption as well. Eventually it meets up with another snail eye worm that is also inside the bird, and they both continue to eat the bird's internal organs and feed off the blood. The eggs are laid in the bird's digestive track so that the bird releases them. The snail eye worms, however, continue to feed. In some cases, when there are enough of them, they ultimately kill the host bird and die along with it.

3)  Emerald Jewel Wasp
Emerald Jewel Wasp

The emerald jewel wasp is actually considered one of the most beautiful wasps in the world. It is also one of the most evil wasps. It's also a devoted mother. When it's time for the female emerald jewel wasp to lay her eggs, she digs a hole. She then goes out and finds a cockroach. According to National Geographic, the cockroach has two to three times the strength of the wasp, but the wasp does not let this bother her. She swoops down on the cockroach and stings him with her long stinger. This both paralyzes and anesthetizes the cockroach. After this, she injects her second stinger into a specific part of the cockroach's brain. The venom then goes on to target the survival instincts in the roach. This, ultimately, turns the cockroach into a zombie roach.

Zombie Roach:
zombie roach

The wasp leads the cockroach back into the burrow. She lays her eggs on top of its stomach. Then she bites off the antenna and feeds until she is content. From there, she seals the burrow with rocks and leaves. The eggs eventually hatch, and the baby emerald jewel wasps emerge. They dig down into the cockroach and consume it alive. They also eat one another until only one is left. The baby emerald wasp lives off its host until it is an adult.

2)  Parasite Wasp
The parasite wasp takes on a decidedly different approach to life as a parasite. It starts off as an egg and a larvae inside a caterpillar. While inside, it does the typical parasitic thing by nourishing itself on the caterpillar. However, it manages to leave the caterpillar's body without harming it. The shocking part is what comes next.

Parasitic Wasp Eggs (White Mass) Intertwined with Lime Butterfly Caterpillar
Parasitic Wasp Eggs (White Mass) Intertwined with Lime Butterfly Caterpillar
By J.M. Garg via Wikimedia Commons

Once the wasp larvae emerges, the caterpillar suddenly becomes the wasp larvae's protector. It refuses all food and it protects the wasps. It even goes so far as to wrap them in protective silk. When predators arrive, it attacks, using head butts and head swings to defend itself. The wasps eventually emerge from their cocoons, but once more, they do not eat the caterpillar. The caterpillar dies shortly afterward, and the wasp flies away. Scientists are still uncertain what creates the mind change.

Wasp Parasitizing a Gypsy Moth Caterpillar
Wasp Parasitizing a Gypsy Moth Caterpillar

Research has been released in the PLoS One Journal, and speculation continues as to whether it is a hormonal change or something similar.

1)  Immortal Jellyfish

Immortal Jellyfish Parasite

The immortal jellyfish's real name is turritopsis dohrnii. It follows a process of trans-differentiation. Unlike most creatures that reach old age and die, the immortal jellyfish just reverts back to its childlike state. At the start of its life, it finds a host and attaches itself. There it feeds and grows. From there, it then releases itself from the host and goes on its way to mate and lay eggs. Once this happens, it transforms itself into a tiny polyp, reabsorbs its own sex organs and tentacles. Then it attaches itself to something so that it can continue. However, they are not actually so problematic. Many of them are devoured or die from disease. While they do not attach humans, they are pretty diverse. According to "Cheating Death," they can even attach themselves to non biological material such as substrate. They can live for extended periods off their own tentacles and organs by converting them into gel within the hood. This process is quite bizarre, but it is one that many scientists are trying to understand. Scientists originally hoped that there would be a way to turn this into immortality for humans, but "Cheating Death" states that scientists now agree that that is not likely to be the case.





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