Episode 67 – Tongue-Eating Louse: The Prometheus Peekaboo Parasite

“And today we’re talking about a crustacean whose name sounds like an old-timey insult. ‘Hey, get back here you tongue-eating louse and I’ll give you what for!’”

Have you ever loaded your family into a big RV and taken to the open road? One undersea crustacean does something similar with its family. Only instead of the open road it’s the open ocean, and instead of a large and luxurious Winnebago, it’s a northern red snapper. It’s a big ocean for a small arthropod and hitching a ride on a wayward fish can really help them get around. But here’s the catch: they have to do something that borders on the grotesque and oceanesque to fill their bellies during their nautical adventures. But sometimes survival requires a sea parasite to get gross and gauche in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Thanks to Oh No Lit Class for the use of the intro Joke grotesque and oceanesque of their mini show Study Breaks!

Measure Up

Length – 29 millimeters (1.1 in) – How many lice go into the maximum depth of the Gulf of California (3,000 meters (9,800 ft))? Hint: the Gulf of California has a rich ecosystem and includes the incredibly rare and critically endangered vaquita porpoise which is adorable and only about four feet long. Answer: 106,909 lice

Width – 14 mm (0.55 in) – How many lice widths go into the width of the widest human tongue 8.57 cm (3.37 in)? Hint: The Guinness Record for the widest tongue belongs to Byron Schlenker of Syracuse, NY. He actually beat his on record in 2014. His tongue apparently grew even wider. Answer: 6.1 lice

Major Fact

The life cycle of the TEL is a race to be queen.

    • Adolescents start out with androgynous until they attach to the gills of a fish.
    • Then they become males and start to make their way into the fish’s mouth.
    • More than one louse will usually hitch a ride on a single fish.
  • The first louse that makes its way to the tongue will become a female, then do something extremlely gross.

The female louse will attach to the back of the tongue with he back legs.

    • The lady louse will then dig into the arteries in the tongue draining it dry of it’s blood.
    • The tongue will then atrophy, rot, and fall off.
    • The louse will then do something that is unheard of among other parasites. It will fulfill the role of the fish’s tongue.
    • It attached it’s back legs to the remaining muscles of tongue stump and the fish is able to move it around like a prosthetic tongue.
  • The louse continues to survive off of blood and mucus.

At this point, it may not hurt the fish.

    • If one louse is in the fish, both the fish and the louse can remain healthy.
    • However, males often stick around in the gills and travel up to the female mouth louse to mate.
  • If two or more lice are in a fish, it may be underweight and malnourished.

We aren’t really sure what happens when the fish dies in the wild.

    • In captivity, the louse will detach but stay close to the fish head.
  • In the wild, we don’t know if they go after new hosts.

A mouth louse only goes after fish and doesn’t hurt humans unless you handle them, in which case, they might bite.

    • However, it does go after fish humans eat, including snapper.
    • A lawsuit in Puerto Rico centered around a customer of a supermarket chain who claimed to get sick after accidentally eating a tongue-eating louse after cooking and eating a fish that had the parasite. However, the suit was dropped when it was shown that louse wasn’t poisonous if ingested.
  • Isopod are sometimes eaten regularly is some cultures.

A photographer named Qing Lin captured a now famous photo that was a finalist for Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2017. The photo depicts three clownfish and if you look closely, you can see that each one has a little with head with black beady eyes peeking out of their mouths.