[MUSIC PLAYING] LAUREN J. YOUNG: He has a very unique perspective on parasites. He sees them really as just another creature in our world that also serves important roles in the ecosystem. So the way he presents them in his artwork, he has this series called Parasite Monster Girls, and it really captured me. And I decided that I really wanted to do a story about it.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Welcome to Universe of Art, a podcast from Science Friday and WNYC Studios about artists who use science to take their work to the next level. I'm Science Friday producer D. Peterschmidt. So we've all been in situations where we've tried to get friends of ours to watch, or read, or listen to a piece of media that you just completely love, and usually, that kind of advocacy can fall on deaf ears. It can be really difficult to put words to that sort of thing.
Now, magnify that problem with scientists, who cares so much about a certain topic that they sometimes devote a huge chunk of their lives to it. And what if that topic is maybe not the most appealing thing in the world on its face? How do you get people to look past the surface level and have them emotionally resonate with it the same way you do?
Well, the subject of today's episode had that exact problem. Dr. Tommy Leung is a lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and he studies parasites, not necessarily an animal that people are fawning over.
So he got creative. He's also an Illustrator, and he turned to the art style of anime and manga to give a fun and accessible twist on these fascinating creatures. And before we learn more about that, I'm here with Lauren J. Young. She's an associate health editor at Scientific American and former Science Friday digital producer. We used to work together.
She wrote an article for Science Friday's website about Tommy and his parasite art a couple of years ago, and she's here now to discuss it. Nice to talk to you, Lauren.
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Hey, D. It's really nice to be back.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, no. So can you give a brief overview of this piece?
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Yeah, sure. So the story is really about parasites, which are really, actually to me, very fascinating creatures. I studied biology, and I took a lot of entomology classes that covered various examples of parasites. And they honestly get a really bad rap, which we know there are some very seriously harmful parasites that cause diseases in humans and things like that.
And obviously, popular culture has really taken off parasites in a slightly negative way in film. Aliens was one of the first very well-known popularized use of a parasite in fiction and, obviously, watching it as a young child, a traumatic thing to see a creature bursting out of someone's chest in order to survive, and live, and move on to its next life stage.
And that's, scientifically, like how parasites work. But I really learned as parasites is it is just another lifestyle.
It's just a very different lifestyle than what we, obviously, know. But I came across this particular parasitologist Tommy Leung and have been familiar with his work for a very, very long time because he has a very unique perspective on parasites. He sees them really as just another creature in our world that also serves important roles in the ecosystem.
So the way he presents them in his artwork and also in his writing, too-- he's a really, really great writer-- really drew me. And he has this series called Parasite Monster Girls, which I found I think through Twitter. And it really captured me, and I decided that I really wanted to do a story about it for Science Friday.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Right. So you included a lot of Tommy's illustrations in this article. Can you describe what they look like just so our listeners have a better sense of what we're talking about here?
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Yeah, So Tommy's work, it's so vibrant. It's very playful. He's been a long fan of manga and anime, so that really, obviously, is kind of the crux of his style. And I remember him telling me like, yeah, it started out as a hobby. I really love parasites. It's what I do for my research. And I really love anime, and I really love drawing. So I'm going to bring this all together in a really cool, neat way.
And the caricatures are just awesome. And they're just really playful. They all have their own personality, which I really love. But you could see in all his artwork that there's just these kind of cute two motifs in the fashion of the parasites. Like, there's one called Ophelia, which is based off of a species of cordyceps, which is a fungus. And her kind of like corset upper body is covered with these fruiting bodies, which is very much--
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah, totally.
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Yeah, very much a reference to the actual fungi itself. So it's really fun. Like, clearly his science really informs his artwork, and his style is just so pronounced. But yeah. [CHUCKLES]
D. PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. It's clear he's having a lot of fun with it. [CHUCKLES]
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Yes, exactly. [CHUCKLES]
D. PETERSCHMIDT: I mean, like, you were a fan of parasites going into this. Did how you thought about them change after you wrote this?
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Well, one of the things that really struck me was the sheer diversity of them. Again, when we think of a parasite, really what we're talking about is just a specific relationship between two different organisms. So for me, it just opened up my eyes on how many types of organisms are considered parasites.
And we don't really know a lot about the diversity of parasites because since they are-- I think there's a bit of this sort of ick gross factor. There's less of an investment in studying them. And so there's these parasitologists like Tommy and other various groups of parasitologists that are really fighting to understand and conserve them in order to understand how they play a role in all of our ecosystems.
I can't remember if I quoted Tommy on this, but I feel like at one point he said we're all just living actually in a parasite world. Like, that's really what it is. Like, that that's my take on all this, too, what really changed my perception of it all.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: We're living in a parasites world.
That's a great place to end it. All right. Thanks for writing the article, Lauren. And thanks for taking the time.
LAUREN J. YOUNG: Yeah. No problem.
D. PETERSCHMIDT: And now here's the "Science Friday" article "Why We Should Defend Parasites," written by Lauren J. Young. Most crickets aren't good swimmers.
They often drown or become easy bait to aquatic predators, yet you may find one mindlessly wandered towards a stream or pool and willingly fling itself into the water, as if possessed. The culprit of the crickets demise-- a thin, long worm called a nematomorph parasite, commonly known as the horsehair worm.
The moment the cricket hits the water, the worm emerges from its gut, twisting and writhing like a snake. Growing up to four feet in length, the horsehair worm coils inside the crickets gut and will consume its nutrients and fat. It can only find mates and reproduce in water. So to complete its life cycle, the parasite manipulates the host behavior.
There are ginormous worms that people say, ah, so scary! But they're actually quite amazing, says Tommy Leung, parasitologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia. Parasites like horsehair worms contribute to the larger ecosystem.
Researchers in Japan found that the crickets were being eaten by local endangered species of trout. This subsequently has caused the trout to eat less of the other stream invertebrates that help decompose leaf litter and cycle nutrients. These horsehair worms are like a fast food service for the fish inadvertently, says Leung, explaining that the trout wouldn't typically have access to the cricket meal otherwise.
From this particular perspective, the parasite performs specific ecosystem roles. If you like the fish in the creek, then you've got to appreciate these worms that are working hard to bring these fish more food, he says. Parasites are often feared, repulsed, and overlooked by many people, but researchers like Leung are fascinated by the lifestyles parasites have evolved to survive.
He studied parasitic flukes that will clone themselves and form a colony inside snails, parasitic fungi that infect ants and sprout, quote, beautiful fruiting bodies, and even the tapeworms and nematodes from the gut of a beached whale.
Leung is trying to change how we see parasites through his research, writing, and vibrant anime art "Parasite MonMusu," or Parasite Monster Girls, a series of monster characters inspired by parasite species that get a bad reputation. The word "parasite" in general vernacular is kind of like an insult. And that's one reason why people don't care about them, he says. Approximately 40% to 50% of all animal species are parasitic, making up a considerable portion of global biodiversity.
In a recent "Science Friday" interview, parasitologists and ecologists describe efforts to better understand how this large group of organisms drives ecosystems and even build an argument to conserve them. The majority of parasites are out there not infecting people. They don't have anything to do with human beings or human lives, says Leung.
He wasn't a part of the research group that wrote the recent review paper. But he also studies the relationship between parasites and their ecosystems. They're like any other wildlife. They're just living their lives, he says. In a parasitic lifestyle, the organism steals resources and lives off a host to survive.
Parasites in this nature do harm to their hosts. We most often hear of the parasites that are detrimental to humans-- disease-causing worms, agricultural pests, lice, and mite-infested livestock. There are parasites that are causing a great deal of suffering for people, says Leung, explaining that parasites are not always good. But they are extremely interesting in their own place.
Some people will try to learn about parasites to eradicate them. But for me, I want to learn about parasites to understand them.
And we'll be right back after this short break.
Most conservation laws and policies are focused on charismatic creatures and megafauna, says Leung. Since some parasites are specific to particular hosts, conservationists should consider preserving the parasites that live on host species that are endangered, he says. For example, the California Condor Breeding Program had deloused and treated the birds with pesticides during conservation efforts, inadvertently wiping out an entire species of louse.
If you want to save the condor, you should also consider saving things that live on the condor as well, Leung says.
Parasites have diverse and complex lifestyles, lifestyles that aren't so easy to live. A host can be a hostile home for a parasite. They have defense mechanisms and immune responses that make it difficult to survive.
Parasitism is actually one of the most challenging lifestyles on this planet, Leung says. When you're in your home, imagine every single appliance, every piece of furniture is actively trying to kill you every time you use them. That's basically what it's like for a parasite, says Leung. Many parasites must use multiple species to grow and reproduce, jumping over highly improbable obstacles to survive in different environments, he explains.
For instance, the nematode parasite Myrmeconema neotropicum will infect and turn an ant's abdomen red, making it look similar to a ripe berry. It will manipulate the ant to raise its abdomen in the air for birds to eat. Once it's in the bird's digestive tract, the nematode will lay eggs and continue its life cycle.
These types of manipulative parasitic behaviors have inspired popular culture, from the classic chest-bursting monster in the movie "Alien" to the parasitic fungi that unleashed a zombie apocalypse in the video game turned TV series "The Last of Us" to the fungi-carrying Pokemon Paras and Parasect. But their lifestyle and perceived ick factor have given parasites a negative reputation, too. Most people have this picture of parasites as this really lazy way of life, Leung says.
They use the word to describe people who leech off of others. Even the phrase "leeching off other people" is based on the parasite. And it implies that they're really not putting in any effort and using others.
Leung says there needs to be a change in the way we speak about parasites. He writes a parasite of the day blog, where he highlights various species and avoids using language that evokes horror or gore. He also illustrates "Parasite MonMusu," or Parasite Monster Girls, what he calls his, quote, love letter to parasites.
It's kind of my way of showing that parasites can be cute, he says. I don't see them as gross or grotesque. I find them cute and fascinating amidst their grotesqueness. They go hand in hand.
As a fan of drawing and anime, Leung was looking for ways to merge his interests together. He'd been watching an anime about monster girls when he got the idea to apply it to parasites he encountered in his studies. For parasite monster girls, Leung draws upon a style in Japanese anime, manga, and fan art called gijinka, where animals and non-human entities are anthropomorphized as animated characters.
People relate to that a lot more because they say, oh, look-- it's a person. And sometimes I could spark interest in parasites as well. he says. One of Leung's monster girls is Dr. Delilah, the leech monster girl doctor. She's a licensed medical practitioner who treats other monster folks and was inspired by the actual medicinal properties of the leech Hirudo medicinalis.
The leech secretes saliva with anticoagulant proteins, which could be useful blood thinners for preventing clots after surgery. It's just one example of how Leung shows the other side of parasites and how they live. Parasite monster girls series started off as a fun hobby, but it turned into an avenue of art and science communication.
I do it for my own fun, but it sort of also has a secondary outreach side effect, says Leung. It's actually made me a much better artist. Researchers know very little about parasites and the number of species that exist, Leung says. In addition to identification, there are many species out there that we see, but they don't have a name. They just remain undescribed, he says.
Basic cataloging and taxonomy is one of the first steps needed in conservation efforts. It's even more essential to be monitoring populations, as environmental factors like climate change may shift parasite-host relationships. Scientists are just beginning to understand the details of how important parasites might be, Leung says.
They're actually performing really important ecosystem services that we never really appreciate, says Leung. While some may think they aren't the most charismatic creatures, parasites are still a part of our world. Most parasites on this planet are just quietly completing their life cycles, doing their own things, and they're not out to get you, Leung says. Parasites have as much of a right to exist as any other organism on the planet.
And that was "Why We Should Defend Parasites" by Lauren J. Young. If you want to check out Leung's parasite monster girl illustrations, you can head to sciencefriday.com/parasites.
"Universe of Art" is hosted and produced by me, D. Peterschmidt, and I also wrote the music. Charles Bergquist and John Dankosky provided production assistance. And our show art is illustrated by Abelle Hayford.
The original article you just heard was written by Lauren J. Young. And support for Science Friday's science and arts coverage comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Also, if you have an idea for a future episode of "Universe of Art," send us an email or a voice memo to email@example.com. We'll be back in two weeks. See you.