About the Author
Dan Riskin is an evolutionary biologist and passionate ambassador of science to popular audiences. Since 2011, Riskin has cohosted the world’s only hour-long daily science show, Daily Planet, on Discovery Canada. He is also the host of Animal Planet’s wildly successful show Monsters Inside Me, about parasites. He lives in Toronto.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You
Georgia on My Mind
It wasn’t that it hurt all that much. In fact, most of the time I didn’t feel anything at all. But once in a while I’d get a sharp pinch, almost like someone was pressing the edge of a spoon into the top of my head. I didn’t feel sick, and I knew this thing wasn’t going to do any permanent damage, but it was driving me nuts: a small, white, pasty maggot with rings of black bristles around its body was lodged firmly into the top of my head. For all my squeezing, I hadn’t been able to pop it out. It was only a few millimeters long now, but it was eating my flesh, and I knew it would get much, much bigger in the next few weeks. For the life of me, I had no idea how I was going to get it out.
I’d gotten it by accident (obviously) a few weeks prior, working in Belize as part of a team studying bats there. Bats are my thing. I’ve always loved bats and by studying them I’ve been able to travel all over the world: I’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, South Africa, Costa Rica, all over North America, and even to the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, all just to see bats. The excursion to Belize was early in my career, before most of those other trips, and looking back, I see now that I still had a lot to learn about the natural world.
Belize is a small Central American country, about the size of New Jersey, but whereas New Jersey has nine species of bats, Belize has fifty. That’s why I was there. It was 1998, and I was in the first year of graduate school. Our team wanted to find out where some of those Belizean bats hide during the day, and it was a great opportunity for me to get some experience identifying species I’d never seen. After reading countless books and papers about bats, this was my chance to get out and meet some of them.
The place where we worked in Belize is called Lamanai. It’s famous for its ancient Mayan ruins, but we were there for the lush rainforest those ruins are buried beneath. The wildlife in Lamanai blew my mind. There were big, colorful toucans, six-foot crocodiles, brightly colored venomous snakes, howler monkeys, about a zillion kinds of gorgeous insects, and of course, bats! Fishing bats, vampire bats, yellow-shouldered fruit bats, sac-winged bats, sword-nosed bats, frog-eating bats . . . Trust me, if you’ve got even a passing curiosity about bats, Belize is heaven.I
It was a two-week trip, and we were pretty much constantly bushwhacking, so it’s impossible to guess exactly when I got the botfly. Each night we’d set up nets to catch bats; then we’d put radio transmitters on some of them. A transmitter is about the size of a coffee bean with a five-inch antenna hanging from it. You glue it to the fur on a bat’s back, then let the bat go. The transmitter emits a beeping noise on a specific radio frequency, and you can tune in with a radio receiver to find out where the bat is hiding.
Once a radio-tagged bat is released, you can only pick up its signal if you’re near the bat, or if you have a clear line of sight between the hidden bat and the antenna in your hand. So each day, we’d climb to the top of an ancient Mayan ruin and scan for bats above the forest canopy. Once we got a signal, a beeping from the north, for example, we went out with a machete and cut a trail northward until we picked up the signal again from within the forest. Then we hacked away through branches and vines, following the signal as it got stronger, until we could finally see our bat roosting on a branch, or at least figure out which tree hole our bat was hiding in. It was tricky because we needed to cut a path in front of ourselves with machetes, but we had to be quiet so as not to scare the bats off as we approached. It was also tricky because most of the vegetation we were hacking through was full of nasty things like scorpions, thorny acacia plants covered in ants, and venomous snakes. But, man, I have never had so much fun in my life. By the end of the trip, I was feeling pure bliss. I was sunburnt and covered in bug bites, but I’d found a career path that excited me, and I was starting to imagine filling the rest of my life with adventures like this one. Unfortunately, in all the excitement I just failed to notice that one of my insect bites had a maggot in it.
The human botfly looks like a normal housefly, but it is far more stomach-churning than the thing that keeps landing on your salad.1 An adult female botfly zips around in the rainforest, then catches a mosquito in the air, lays an egg on her abdomen, and lets her go. Later, the mosquito bites a mammal (a monkey, a jaguar, or a bat biologist, for example), and while that mosquito feeds, the botfly’s egg falls off the mosquito and onto that mammal. The egg hatches into a maggot, which makes its way into the hole created by the mosquito and then settles in to feed and grow. The maggot starts out just a few millimeters long but grows steadily, until after a month and a half or so, when the maggot—now about an inch long—eats its way back out of the skin, falls to the ground, molts into an adult fly, and then flies away.
It’s actually a pretty smart strategy by the botfly. The adult is big enough that if I’d seen one land on me, I’d have slapped it silly. But the adult never came anywhere near me. It used a mosquito as its courier service, so I didn’t even notice. In fact, I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I was home a few weeks later.
The maggot was firmly lodged at the top of the back of my head, just on the right side. At first it was like any mosquito bite, but a bump started forming around the bite, and that bump was steadily growing. That spot is a very hard place to look at closely on your own head. I tried with two mirrors and a flashlight, but I just couldn’t get a good look—it was too hard to part my hair and squeeze with all that stuff in my hands. All I could see was a swollen red area about the size of a dime. In the center of the red zone was a tiny hole, and sometimes other people would tell me they could see a little white snorkel come poking out of that hole. That was how I knew for sure what I had, because that snorkel is how botfly maggots get their oxygen.
I’d never had a botfly before and didn’t really know how to remove one properly, so I just kept trying to squeeze it like a zit.II This did not impress my friends in the slightest. They made me wear a hat, and if I so much as scratched my face, they’d immediately make me go wash my hands. I tried to explain to them that they couldn’t catch a botfly from me, but that didn’t seem to matter. As far as they were concerned, I had cooties.
After a couple of days, they felt comfortable enough to start making fun of me, but they still wouldn’t come very close. Their jokes were marvelous. They told me the whole botfly thing was just in my head. They told me they knew it was tough but that I shouldn’t let the botfly get under my skin. And they also wanted to know if I could claim my botfly as a dependent on my taxes. They even gave her a name.
So it went, for about a week. I went about my business, with Georgia on my mind, squeezing to try to get her out now and then but mostly just hoping she’d somehow go away. Botflies are hard to squeeze out because they have sharp backward-pointing bristles around their bodies that brace them firmly in the flesh. If they’re lodged somewhere like your arm or chest, you can squeeze enough skin to get behind them and pop them out of that breathing hole, but other parts of the body don’t let you get underneath it. On my head, I just couldn’t get the leverage I needed, so I’d end up squeezing Georgia on the sides, and then she would just hurt more. I hoped that once she got bigger, I’d be able to get my fingers underneath her to squeeze her out, but that strategy never seemed to work.
Maybe if I’d waited longer, I would have been able to dislodge her with my fingers, but I reached my emotional breaking point long before that. About two weeks after coming home from Belize, I snapped. I was in my car, driving to the grocery store, when that spoon-edge-into-my-head pain suddenly started up again. It was in that moment that I immediately decided that Georgia was coming out. I hoped a doctor would agree to do it, because I didn’t want to have to ask a friend. I drove right past the grocery store, made a right, and headed to the hospital.
It’s not easy to gross out a nurse. They see vomit and feces all the time. But it turns out (at least in Canada), that telling a nurse you have a maggot lodged in your head will do the trick. That made me weirdly popular in the ER, so despite a pretty busy waiting room, it didn’t take long for me to see a doctor.
He came in, looked at my chart, then looked me right in the eye and told me he didn’t know what a botfly was. I have this weird paranoia that doctors don’t take me seriously to start with, so I tried to sound as knowledgeable as possible. I told him all about the breathing hole and the bristles and the life cycle with the mosquito, but it was hurting as I talked, so I was kind of hunched over and wincing while I explained. That made me worry he would think I was nuts, and that made me talk even faster. It wasn’t going well.
He looked me straight in the eye again and said nothing for several seconds. Then he took a deep, disappointed breath and asked to have a look at my head.
He put on some latex gloves as I lay chest-down on the table. I put my chin on my crossed arms and he started poking around at the top of my head with his fingers.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Right here.” I poked it.
“That? There’s nothing there,” he said. “It maybe looks like an ingrown hair.”
“No, no. It’s a botfly. See the hole?”
He kept poking. Then he sighed again. He was right on the fence. Either he believed me and I’d be getting rid of this thing right now, or he was going to send me home, and I was going to have to talk one of my friends into cutting my head open.
Finally, after a long pause, he asked me how deep he would need to cut.
“I don’t know. Cut as deep as you want. There’s skull between you and my brain, so you can’t possibly do too much damage.” I was only sort of joking.
I heard him take another breath, followed by a long pause. Then I felt the prick of a needle, freezing the area. Soon I felt a little tug, and then blood started pouring down my forehead in the front, and down onto my neck in the back.
He passed me a towel and I put it across my forehead. In just a few more seconds this thing would be out of me. I couldn’t wait.
But then the doctor said, “I still don’t see anything.”
If the doctor couldn’t get it out, my plan B wasn’t going to work either. Now I had a big cut in my head. Were my friends going to have to dig around it? Reopen it? Maybe I was imagining things. What if it wasn’t a botfly? Then what was it?
I didn’t respond. He kept tugging or cutting (they felt the same at that stage) for what seemed like several minutes, and then he made a quiet, surprised gasping noise.
I didn’t feel anything at all. I didn’t want to turn my head to see what he was doing because I had the towel on my head just right to soak up all the blood.
“Did you get it?”
He rolled his chair around in front of me so I could see him, and presented me with a small urine-sample container full of alcohol. Near its surface, Georgia floated lifelessly.
I was finally free.
Today Georgia sits in that same urine-sample container, on a shelf next to my desk at work. She’s only a few millimeters long, disappointingly small compared to the other botflies I’ve seen on the Internet. Apparently, a lot of people don’t know about botflies, so when they get them, they just let the mystery sore grow for six weeks or so until, to their total surprise, a maggot writhes out of it. Georgia was removed long before that stage, but even though she’s smaller than some of the others, she’s mine. I earned her. I’m proud of her. Ask me if I’ve ever felt like I was “at one with nature,” and I can hold her up and show her to you. She’s like a medal.
I went to Belize as a scientist, to study how biological organisms live in nature, and instead I experienced nature as a biological organism. That really influenced how I perceive the natural world. To me, nature’s not just a pretty photograph of a rainforest. It’s constantly changing, twisting in a dynamic life-and-death drama driven entirely by a battle for energy—energy that flows from host to parasite, from prey to predator, and from rotting carcass to scavenger, in a never-ending battle among all creatures to persist and pass on DNA. Belize reminded me that I’m part of that epic system. We all are. My botfly fed on me to get energy, and I spent energy trying to get rid of it. That’s what nature is—a place where animals selfishly try to survive and make babies by getting the upper hand on one another.
When you think about nature that way, it becomes strange that lately everyone and their dog seems to be telling us we should be living more naturally. We’re surrounded by advice on diet, exercise, medicine, and lifestyle, all championing some version of a “natural” way to live. Since humans evolved as part of nature, we’re told that escape from our modern problems is as simple as getting back to our roots, by moving/eating/behaving the way humans did millennia ago.
The main flaw with that kind of advice, of course, is that it ignores the basic fact that a few thousand years ago people typically only lived into their thirties. There are predators, parasites, and decomposers everywhere, ready to break us down for food at the first opportunity. Living in a modern, Westernized society, we’ve done such a good job of keeping most of those threats at bay that those “natural” advice givers can act as though things like botflies, rattlesnakes, and malaria don’t even exist. But believe me, they do.
If anything, Mother Nature is trying to kill you.
My perspective on nature is a little bit different from the way nature is typically portrayed, but that’s often because advertisers and marketers are using the word nature to sell you something. In their world, nature’s a benevolent bounty of well-being that can always make you healthier and would never, ever hurt you. It’s all honey and no stingers. Nature gives us fruits, vegetables, and shade-grown coffee beans, but not the mold around the bathtub or ants or tapeworms. Advertisers would like us to think those things aren’t really part of the green world. Instead, they’re somehow invaders of it.
Think of a typical shampoo commercial with scenes of soft meadows and waterfall-fed pools, where beautiful models frolic and no two strands of hair ever cling together. There are plants and maybe butterflies, or even horses, but there are never any hornets, scorpions, or leeches. Icky animals hurt sales, so the image of nature has to be left half-finished.
With that utopian version of pseudonature established, companies can then boost sales by making you associate their products with that friendly world. I was at the grocery store recently and saw a cleaning solution that said “nontoxic,” “organic,” and “green” on the label. It also said, right on the front of the package, that it kills mold, mildew, and bacteria. One wipe of that cleaner across the kitchen counter can snuff out millions of lives, but they call the product eco-friendly, as though somehow bacteria don’t count as part of “eco” (whate...
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