Friday, March 15, 2013

Parasites, Fluffy and Not

What is your relationship with parasites? Before you answer 'none' let me list a few organisms or diseases you may have run into:
Mosquitoes, bed bugs, head lice, fleas, pinworms, roundworms swimmer’s itch, giardiasis, crab louse and scabies.
Free of those? Good. There are more than 60 other parasitic organisms that cause humans a lot of grief.

I bring this up not because I want to make you shudder, but because parasitic behavior is important in the book I’m writing about. There is also a fair amount of symbiosis, some of which can be just as creepy.

In general, creatures who are the targets of parasites do everything they can to rid themselves of the pesky things. Even when they do not act as a vector of disease (think malaria), they sap the energy of their hosts.

What a quandary, then, for anjels. They actually like their parasites.
Phlox (singular and plural) are flying parasites who seek long-term, but not permanent, attachment to their hosts. Their preferred hosts are anjels. Over time anjels and phlox have reached an accommodation. Anjels will generally pick one phlox at puberty and allow it to attach to them.

Phlox are furry, flying creatures who come in a variety of colors. They are one of the few decorations an anjel can “wear.”  Some anjels will go overboard, collecting phlox like some women collect shoes. Those anjels are called flaunters. Their colorful phlox make them quite dazzling. And constantly famished.

A phlox is about a foot long. It is snake-like, if you can imagine that in a furry, flying critter, and its tail is prehensile. Determining where its body ends and its tail begins is difficult. Phlox are based loosely on lampreys. They have the same head-topping nostril and circular, sucking mouth.

Anjels tolerate them because they are not just parasitic, but symbiotic. Phlox have evolved along with anjels and help them in their hunting.

There is an ambivalence about phlox among the anjels. Some pain--short and sharp--is involved in the attaching and detaching of phlox. There is a cost to having them, in terms of calories. Yet, they are pretty and they can earn their keep.

Phlox may remind you a little of the relationship you have with a furry little biter of your own. No, of course Spot is not a parasite!  And you keep Puff around because she is soft and beautiful and she hardly ever sucks your blood!

I maintain that our relationship with dogs and cats is symbiotic. I can get away with this partly because there is not complete agreement on the term’s definition. Most pet owners would argue that we do get something important from them, though it may often be intangible. Do they get something from us? Perhaps the same intangible? Perhaps just kibbles.

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