Even Saddam Hussein and the madmen behind the Soviet’s infamous Biopreparat facility understood that getting serious about bio-weaponry means turning to the animal kingdom. Its denizens not only have hundreds of millions of years’ head start in Research & Development, they’ve been free to innovate unchecked by moral restraint. Anthrax, botulism and plague, to say nothing of Ebola and the hantaviruses, could decimate humanity given half a chance. Herewith, a few highlights from nature’s awesome arsenal:
1 The Bombardier Beetle: The most famously armed member of the animal kingdom, the bombardier beetle gets its name from its unique defense apparatus. Located near
the end of its abdomen are two small glands, one of which produces hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone and the other catalitic enzymes. These chemicals and enzymes are mixed together in what is aptly known as the “explosion chamber.” The result is literally a detonation, in which a now-boiling stream of toxins is ejected out the beetle’s arse. Factor in that the bombardier can rotate its abdomen 270 degrees, giving it an almost universal firing circle. Bart Simpson, eat your shorts!
2 The Eastern Lubber Grasshopper: The lubber tries hard to keep predators at bay — bright-colored patterns signal the presence of toxic substances, and birds foolish enough to ignore these warnings meet a grisly fate indeed. If the red and yellow markings don’t do the trick, disturbed lubbers secrete a nasty foaming spray from their thoracic region, accompanied by a loud hissing noise. A surge of toxic vomit awaits those who still don’t get the message.
3 The Ichneumon Wasp: This is the one that came close to demolishing Darwin’s faith in God. The female ichneumon lays her eggs inside or near a young grub of another species. When the egg hatches, the ichneumon larva burrows into this tasty flesh and paralyzes its host while slowly eating it alive. Care is taken to preserve vital organs until the last possible moment.
4 Irukandji, the Box Jellyfish: Though it is no bigger than a peanut, an irukandji, commonly known as a “box jellyfish,” is currently rated as the most toxic creature on Earth. New Scientist magazine recently described it this way: “All but invisible in the water, its transparent body is covered from head to tentacle tip with spring-loaded stinger cells that discharge at the slightest touch, harpooning your skin with venomous barbs.” The initial sting is so mild most people hardly notice, but within minutes you’ll be fighting for your life. Those lucky enough to survive often bear the whiplike scars for years.
5 Evarcha, the Terminator: Spiders in general are predators from hell — only feeding on fluids, they liquefy prey before eating. Typically a spider immobilizes its prey with venom and then pumps into the captive body a flood of digestive juices. In effect, says spider expert Michael Pollard, “The prey becomes an external stomach.” But a newly discovered breed of jumping spider, or evarcha, discovered in Kenya adds a further twist to this macabre cocktail. Dubbed the “Terminator,” this particular species only drinks vertebrate blood, including that of humans. Terminator does not possess the requisite equipment needed to penetrate skin itself and leaves that task to its unofficial proxy, the mosquito. A Terminator need only wait for a swollen mosquito to cross its path, at which point the spider leaps onto the insect’s belly, pricks a hole, and siphons off the contents. In a feeding frenzy, evarcha may devour and kill up to 20 mosquitoes in a sitting. Both males and females are more attractive to the opposite sex if they have recently dined on blood.
6 Onchocerca Volvulus: This one is truly terrifying. Minute worms, Onchocerca volvulus live inside the human body in marble-sized nodules they construct for themselves. During their 10-year life cycle thousands of offspring spawn, leaving the nodules to make their way to the skin. Tragically, the human immune system is ill-equipped to fight back, and instead of killing the invaders, it produces a leopardlike rash that is so itchy that victims often scratch themselves to death. If the worms emerge through the outer layers of the eyes, blindness can ensue. Since the larvae are aquatic, the disease is often known as river blindness, and in some parts of Africa most of the population over 40 has been rendered sightless.
7 Other Tubular Fiends: In his squirm-inducing masterpiece, Parasite Rex, science writer Carl Zimmer catalogs an astonishing array of nature’s horrors, including a long list of worms. In addition to Onchocerca there are 2-foot-long guinea worms, which escape their hosts by punching blisters through the leg and slowly crawling out; filarial worms, which cause elephantiasis and may swell a scrotum to fill a wheelbarrow; and tapeworms, which Zimmer describes as “eyeless, mouthless creatures that live in the intestines, stretching as long as 60 feet, and made up of thousands of segments, each with its own male and female organs.”
8 The Sacculina Barnacle: Though it begins life like any normal crustacean, instead of growing into an independent adult and foraging for its food, sacculina injects itself into a crab, turning its host into a living zombie and perpetual meal. When first hatched from its egg, sacculina sports the full complement of body parts — head, legs, mouth and so on. But once it finds a crab host, it quickly loses all these structures, even the mouth. In their place, the atrophied barnacle grows fleshy rootlike tendrils that silently invade the crab’s body, sucking nutrients from its blood. As Carl Zimmer remarks, from the outside you can’t tell the difference between a healthy crab and one that’s been infested by sacculina, “though the parasite may be filling its entire body, the roots even wrapping around its eyestalks.”