Ten real-life Halloween horrors in the natural world
Most of the things that make Halloween scary aren’t real — witches, vampires, stumbling mummies, ghosts. I find this rather odd, since the world is full of things that are truly frightening, no imagination necessary. So I’ve compiled 10 real-life Halloween horrors with some help from the Science News staff. There was so much to choose from that the puppy-sized spider recently found in Guyana doesn’t even make the list.
Sydney funnel-web spider
Generally, I don’t find spiders all that scary. But I’m pretty wary of the venomous ones. And when I’m visiting Australia, I won’t get close enough to any of them because there’s a danger I might encounter a Sydney funnel-web spider. These big black spiders, which can reach 3.5 centimeters in length, have one of the most toxic venoms of any spider in the world. And though the Australian Museum says that reports of the spider jumping onto or chasing people are just myths, the fact that they can be easily found in suburban backyards — and thus are easy to encounter — is enough to put me on guard.
Fictional evil scientists aren’t the only ones who can practice mind control — parasites may be able to, as well. This freaky aspect of biology is one of Science News’ life sciences reporter Susan Milius’ favorite topics. “I have written a possibly excessive number of stories about this,” she says, pointing to her 2011 story about zombie ants in Thailand. Ants infected with a fungus clamp onto a leaf and stay stuck there until death. The action may benefit the fungus by keeping it in the humid low canopy where it can reproduce. Milius has also tackled Toxoplasma gondii, a one-celled parasite that seems to make rats less fearful of the cats that help the parasite complete its life cycle. She also reviewed the evidence that T. gondii might also make zombies of humans but, thankfully, the evidence for that is still fairly scant.
Ticks and their bites are never fun, but one species highlighted by former Gory Details blogger Erika Engelhaupt will make you cringe: Infectious-disease specialist Tony Goldberg of the University of Wisconsin-Madison discovered an Amblyomma tick stuck up in his own nose after returning from Kibale National Park in Uganda. “Amblyomma ticks not only carry bacteria that cause diseases such as Q fever and African tick bite fever, but also are likely to require blood from multiple vertebrate hosts to complete their life cycle. That makes the ticks potential transmitters of disease between chimps and humans,” Engelhaupt wrote. Eek.
Brothers and sisters don’t always get along, but the fights rarely start before birth. For oophagous (egg-eating) species of sharks, though, gestation can be a dangerous battle, and only a few survive. Hatched embryos of shortfin mako sharks, for instance, will eat unfertilized eggs. Grey nurse sharks are even worse — the first embryo to hatch in one of the mom’s two uteruses eats all the other embryos. Only two pups survive to be born.
Mammal-eating pitcher plant
Most carnivorous plants, while slightly creepy, aren’t going to be scary unless you’re an insect. Tales of plants that can eat anything bigger are usually just myth. There’s one exception, though. In 2012, researchers on an expedition to the island of Palawan in the Philippines found a Nepenthes attenboroughii pitcher plant digesting a mammal — a tree shrew. The shrews probably aren’t the plant’s main prey, just accidental catches, botanist Alastair Robinson notes:
Milius wrote about these wasps in 2005: “After a female European beewolf (Philanthus triangulum) catches a bee, she stings it into immobility and then lugs it back to a burrow she has dug in sandy ground. She tucks one to five honeybees into each of the chambers, where she later lays an egg. The bees, which remain alive, although paralyzed, for the first few days after a sting, serve as baby food.” I bet that beewolves are really scary if you’re a bee.
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With Ebola paranoia running rampant recently, it can be difficult to tell whether being fearful of the disease is a rational response. But two Science News writers on the Ebola beat — Tina Hesman Saey and Nathan Seppa — assure me that Ebola is truly frightening. “Ebola has topped my list since I set foot in Africa in April of 1978, in Zaire,” Seppa says. “No one had a name for it yet. We just referred to it as, ‘whatever it was that wiped out Yambuku.’ Pretty scary then; pretty scary now.” But that doesn’t mean that most people should be worried about getting Ebola, especially in the United States. People contract the disease mainly through direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is infected with Ebola and symptomatic. With just a handful of cases outside of West Africa, and only a few in the United States, that contact is incredibly unlikely.
Giant bat-eating centipede
There’s something about centipedes — with their multitudes of legs — that’s just a bit creepy. But the one species that terrifies Science News assistant editor Allison Bohac is the giant bat-eating centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, of Peru. The 30-centimeter-long arthropod is kind of pretty, with an orange body and bright yellow legs, but its ability to capture and consume a wide variety of large prey — including lizards, frogs, birds, mice and bats — along with its potent venom makes it a creature worth fearing.
One reason why I surveyed the Science News staff for their biggest fears is because I’m fascinated, rather than frightened, by most of the creepy-crawlies of the natural world. But one thing that gives me nightmares are skin parasites. That video of Smithsonian entomologist Mark Moffett hatching a botfly from his hand? I won’t watch it. I can’t read about parasites creeping under the skin without feeling squeamish. (I even closed my eyes every time the black oil showed up on The X-Files.) Maybe I’m not alone. The Bulletin of the World Health Organization notes that these diseases are neglected by the scientific community and health care providers. That means treatments can be hard to find and that makes these diseases even scarier.
“Some microbes are changing faster than antimicrobials can kill them. As a result, it’s once again possible to get a bacterial or fungal infection for which there is no sure cure. That’s how roughly 23,000 people die in the United States each year,” Seppa noted in Science News earlier this month. Antibiotic resistance is often seen as a problem that’s far off in the future, or something that happens to someone else. That is, until it happens to you or someone you know and you get a wake-up call reminding you that antibiotic-resistant superbugs have become disturbingly common. What’s really frightening about this is that something as simple as a hangnail can now be deadly if it’s colonized by the wrong microbe.
What scares you? Tell us in the comments, or tweet your fear to @SarahZielinski and @ScienceNews.
Editor’s note: This post was updated on Nov. 1, 2014, to correct the suggestion that funnel-web spiders are poisonous. As a commenter noted, the spiders are venomous.