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Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer

2000; 298 pp.

$14

Touchstone Books

Tapeworms, liver flukes,and trypanosomes don't get a lot of respect. Biologists traditionally saw these organisms, simplified for life in other creatures' innards, as degenerate exceptions to the progressive trend of evolution. But as Carl Zimmer shows, parasites are among the planet's most successful life-forms. Their numbers and diversity are staggering: the majority of animal species are parasites, and many plants, fungi, protozoa, and bacteria have followed this evolutionary path. They've colonized a multitude of microhabitats (a dozen different kinds may live in the guts of a duck, a hundred on the gills of a fish) and perfected ways of living off their hosts without killing them.

From the Costa Rican rainforest to a Southern California salt marsh to the cassava fields of Nigeria, Zimmer follows scientists as they inventory parasite species, work out their ecological relationships, and enlist their services in pest management. The picture that emerges is complex. Although parasites still exact an enormous toll on human health, they're also important indicators of the well-being of ecosystems; it's not the big predators who are really at the top of the food chain.

Parasite Rex is one of those books that change the way you see the world. On one scale, each of us is an ecosystem with an unsuspected complement of passengers. On another, if you view the Earth as an organism, there's a real sense in which we are its parasites?and we could learn a lot from the lowly tapeworm about sustainable exploitation.

" The inside of a body is a tough place to survive. With our air-breathing lungs, our ears finely tuned to the vibrations of the air, we are adapted to life on land. A shark is made for the sea, ramming water through its gills and smelling for prey miles away. Parasites live in a different habitat altogether, one for which they are precisely adapted in ways that scientists can barely understand. Parasites can navigate through their murky labyrinth; they can glide through skin and gristle; they can pass unscathed through the cauldron of the stomach. They can turn just about every organ in the body?the eustachian tube, the gill, the brain, the bladder, the Achilles tendon?into their home. They can rebuild parts of the host's body to suit their own comfort. They can feed on almost anything: blood, gut lining, liver, snot. They can make their host's body bring them food."

 

ISBN: 074320011X

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