"Parasites live in a warped version of the outer world, a place with its own rules of navigation, of finding food and making a home."
Compiled by Melissa Kaplan
The quote above, from Carl Zimmer's excellent book, Parasite Rex, just hints at the complexity and adaptability of parasites both internal and external. Parasites drive their hosts in ways biologists and medical researchers are just beginning to understand, despite decades of research. Regardless of whose definition of parasite one uses, there are far more parasites on (and in) Earth than there are nonparasitic species. When defined as an organism that invades a host and sets up housekeeping, the term parasites includes bacteria and viruses.
Parasites are being found to affect everything from color to reproduction and can, as in Hollywood's best (and worst) horror flicks, take over their host and cause them to behave in ways that, while ensuring the death of the host, ensures the parasite gets to move on to the next stage in its lifecycle.
All that being said, there are times when we need to do something about them. When a host animal is in its native environment, there is a check and balance going on between host and parasite, and between parasites, cooperatively working within their own species, and often in conjunction with other parasite species. In the wild, a host and many of the parasite species that have lived in the host species for perhaps hundreds of millions of years achieve a sort of homeostasis. Without those parasites at those levels, both the host and parasites will fail to survive and complete their natural lifecycle.
Harboring hosts in captivity, however, can upset that balance. Upsetting the balance can enable one parasite over another, and can impair the host's immune system from exerting the regulators that would be at work in the wild. As pet keepers, we need to find that fine line between helping the host maintain normal levels of parasites, and helping to quash excessive levels of those parasite species and to guard against inadvertently enabling the invasion of parasites new to the species we keep to come into contact with them.
Rex. Zimmer, Carl. 2000. The Free Press, Simon & Schuster,
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