Nautilus

Parasites Are Us

Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago. His research on population and evolutionary genetics has been widely published in professional and trade journals and his 2009 book, Why Evolution Is True, established him as a leading force in the study of evolution. Jerry is also an internationally famous defender of evolution against proponents of creationism and intelligent design. He is a highly respected scientist.

This, however, is a more personal story about Coyne. It goes back to 1973, when he was a mere 24-year-old graduate student at Harvard. As he moved through the program, Coyne was becoming well versed in the intellectual tools of his trade—genetics, evolutionary logic, research methods, and the like. But when it came to real-life contact with nature, his experience was pretty much “limited to unexciting fruit flies crawling feebly around food-filled glass tubes.”1 He was even more frustrated working at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. This was the same museum that was founded by the great Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, under the guiding philosophy to “study nature, not books.” But, aside from fruit flies in a sterile lab, the only nature Coyne was seeing were stuffed mammals in a display case on his way to the Pepsi machine. When given the opportunity to take a summer field course in tropical ecology in Costa Rica, Coyne didn’t hesitate. He never imagined how close to nature he would get.

Unwelcome Guest: Botflies attach their eggs to mosquitoes’ wings. Then, when the mosquito bites a mammal, the egg hatches, and burrows inside that mammal. It will live there, eating the host’s tissue, until it’s big enough to survive on its own.Stephen J. Krasemann / Science Source

Toward the end of his stay in Costa Rica, Coyne was walking through the forest when he heard a mosquito getting closer and closer, and finally, it bit him on the head. “Not too far from the crown and I scratched it,” he recalled.2 But, unlike a usual mosquito bite, this one didn’t want to go away. When, after a few days, the bump had grown to the size of a pea, Coyne consulted with a fellow student who was an entomologist. His friend got up on a bunk bed. “She looked at my head and pulled the hairs back, and she said, ‘Oh my God, there is something moving in there,’ ” Coyne said. She spotted what appeared to be a tiny hose protruding from the mosquito bite. Then she realized the hose was wiggling. It was a breathing tube, like a little straw. That meant there was something live on the other side of the tube. The two biologists knew right away it had to be a maggot.

The maggot turned out to be a botfly, a hairy insect that lives in tropical regions in Central and South America. It has a biologically ingenious and, most humans would think, rather disgusting strategy for ensuring the survival of its young. The process works something like this: After a pregnant female lays her eggs, she flies in the air and grabs on to a mosquito. Then, in midflight, she glues her eggs to the mosquito’s wings. The mother leaves. The mosquito, who probably has no idea anything has happened, continues doing what it always does, which is to fly around until it finds a warm mammal and sucks its blood. When the mosquito finds its prey, the mammal’s heat triggers the eggs to hatch. One of the newly hatched larva—a tiny maggot—burrows its way inside the mammal through the mosquito bite, sets up a little home, and sticks its breathing tube out the opening. Botflies feed on the mammal’s tissue until, after about six weeks, they’ve grown big

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