MMmmm…That’s Good Grub*

*warning: contains references which may upset delicate sensibilities or weak stomachs.

What strange dangers lurk in the heart of darkness?
What strange dangers lurk in the heart of darkness?

With all the dangers of the Amazon rainforest real and imagined, the most common ones are the most easily overlooked. Forget the mega-fauna: jaguars (extremely rare), fer-de-lance (rare), white-lipped peccaries or even caimans. You are much more likely to be hit by a falling branch than bit by a snake. But watch out for the little things, like microbes. Or parasites.

Here’s a fascinating bit of natural history that will interest a tropical traveler: the botfly, Dermatobia hominis, is a large, noisy insect, easily detected and deflected. In order to implant an egg into the skin of a warm blooded animal primate (human or otherwise) and get its life cycle going it captures a mosquito on the wing, onto which it lays an egg and then releases. If that doesn’t sound unlikely enough, that mosquito must then find a warm-blooded animal primate (human or otherwise) for the purpose of obtaining a blood meal for its own brood. As the mosquito settles onto the skin and begins feeding, the body heat of the mosquito’s victim hatches the botfly egg. The larvae then drops and crawls into the hole left by the mosquito’s proboscis. There it grows and develops, nourished by the surrounding flesh of the animal primate (human or otherwise). A little miracle when you think about it, no?

[update 7:07 pm. This just in from Dr.Katherine Milton of the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, an authority on botfly infestations in howler monkeys. I thank her for the corrections. She writes: “Dermatobia lives on any mammal–not just primates but cows and cats and dogs and horses and rats and even a report of a turkey! It is not confined to primates. And it captures a mosquito or blood sucking fly (females I imagine in both cases) and attaches a neat row of its eggs to it. . See my October 2003 Nat. History article ‘Something to Howl About’, pages 20-24. Now, as for your film, well, the music you picked was so well suited to the tragedy of that poor little lost larva. I cried buckets! I bet if you could stuff it back into where ever you cruelly forced it out of, you’d do it in a heart beat.” See here for a list of Dr.Milton’s publications- her excellent and lively article is available in pdf form.]

Over the course of our three week expedition your intrepid explorers endured various low-grade forms of discomforts we won’t go into here. But both Mike and I won the lottery, so to speak, when it came to the minor miracle of the botfly. Yesterday I was delivered of a healthy baby bot (and a good thing, too- the 1 a.m. feedings were driving me crazy). The Ant Man knew just what to do: cover the ever-growing mosquito bite/botfly baby bump with a strip of clear packing tape, and leave it on for 24 hours. This caused the larvae to gamely try to catch its breath through the now-blocked hole in the center of the swelling. When he removed the tape, voilà, there was the little critter all visible and catchable with forceps. Before putting it in preservative, it went under the scope for a minute so we could enjoy its rare beauty. And share it with all of you, too.

You know, I rarely entertain, but when I do, I try to keep my guests happy and comfortable. Being a little neurotic about these things I often end up stressing about the details. In this case I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, I was the perfect host.

15 thoughts on “MMmmm…That’s Good Grub*

  1. TR says:

    And this my dear is why you are destined to win Oklahoma’s Best Unusual Blog! Good grief! Well, I can attest that every visit to Motmot Manor has left me well-fed. You are, indeed, the perfect host.

    This might be a good time to mention that the mammalogist that I met last week at the Sutton Living Lab has already documented several cases of two types of leishminiasis in Texas and Oklahoma – apparently moving rapidly up through Central America and Mexico headed north. There were no cases documented previous to this summer. The good news for you is that you no longer have to travel to the Amazon to pick-up a lethal parasite!

  2. Clare says:

    That is so cool. One of the best accounts I’ve read on the botfly comes from a book called Tropical Nature by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. In the essay called “Jerry’s Maggot” he attempted to keep his until it emerged as an adult. He didn’t know about the packing tape either, the “cure” then was to strap a piece of meat over the afflicted area in which the maggot would burrow through to get air.

    By the way, what is the song in the soundtrack?

  3. zeladoniac says:

    Clare, the book you mention is where I first learned about the botfly. I couldn’t find my copy (must have loaned it out) but that’s the gist of the story. By the way, we tried the “meat cure” on Mike’s scalp bot, but it didn’t work, although I have a really funny photo of a piece of bacon bobby-pinned to his head like a non-kosher yarmulke.

    “Tropical Nature” is also the book that got me interested in the tropics- it’s a great read.

    TR, good to know we can pick up all kinds of things without leaving the state!

    On the music, I think it’s 3 Leg Torso, but I’m not sure. Youtube has an “audio swap” function, and I just picked something at random. It fits, doesn’t it?

  4. Pam says:

    Congratulations (?) on your baby bot! EeeeeeeOooooooo! You had me laughing. Music to match too! Only a nature artist can endure and find beauty in the almost impossible. Gotta love ya!

  5. zeladoniac says:

    Thanks for the offer- I should get myself a new copy. Time to reread it.

    The music is wonderful. I like the band a lot- I’ll have to do some more investigating on them and see what else they do.I wonder if they mind playing backup for a botfly.

  6. Julie Zickefoose says:

    There is so much pathos in this poor writhing thing, ripped from its foster womb too soon, especially when paired with that cool song. The way it kind of looks up at you…the way its spiracles seem to search for the flesh it once knew…ohhhh.
    You are a harsh hostess. although your comment about the 1 AM feeding hit home in a big, big way…ecccch. I’m so glad I finally found this post. Pure genius.

  7. zeladoniac says:

    I am a harsh hostess- no free lunch here. They are sort of cute when they’re little, though, aren’t they?

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