New book tells strange tales of evolution

Collection features creatures with seemingly bizarre lifestyles


STRANGER THINGS  A “brainwashed” caterpillar (one shown), whose every instinct is controlled by wasp larvae, is one of many curious species featured in a new book.

György Csóka/Forest Research Institute Hungary/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar Matt Simon Penguin Books, $20

Writer Matt Simon begins his new book with a bleak outlook on life: “In the animal kingdom, life sucks and then you die.” But thanks to evolution — which Simon calls “the most majestic problem-solving force on planet Earth” — some critters have peculiar adaptations that make life suck a little less (though sometimes at the expense of other species).

From mustachioed toads to pink fairy armadillos, Simon’s debut book, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar, recounts an eclectic cadre of animals that use creative and often bizarre solutions to find love, a babysitter, a meal or a place to crash.

Take, for instance, the book’s title characters. Technically, it’s the wasp larvae that brainwash the caterpillar. Once a female Glyptapanteles wasp deposits eggs into a living caterpillar, she takes off, leaving the oblivious host to babysit her young. After hatching, some larvae stay behind to release chemicals that manipulate the caterpillar’s brain. Once their siblings erupt from the poor creature’s body, the caterpillar mindlessly protects the youngsters from predators.

Mind control isn’t unique to wasps — flies and even fungi do it, too. But the book is about more than just the seemingly diabolical tactics of parasites. Prey species also have skin, or in some cases snot, in the game.

Hagfish, eel-like fish that scavenge the seafloor, eject thick, slimy mucus to clog the gills of sharks that try to make a meal of the hagfish. And the East African crested rat protects itself from dogs and other predators by slathering its fur with the chewed-up bark of the Acokanthera tree, traditionally used by indigenous hunters to make poison arrows. “A species may gain an edge, but any sort of edge is answered,” Simon writes. And so marches on the arms race of natural selection.

The author never dives deeply into exactly how these creatures evolved. The book is a quick, fun read that’s light on science and heavy on snark (not to mention a lot of anthropomorphizing). Readers familiar with Simon’s column for Wired, “Absurd Creature of the Week,” may already be acquainted with some of these animals. But the book is packed full of even more fascinating facts that will both impress and creep out.

Buy The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar from Sales generated through the links to contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs.

Cassie Martin is a deputy managing editor. She has a bachelor's degree in molecular genetics from Michigan State University and a master's degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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