I became an unwilling expert on pubic lice a couple years ago when I bought “crabs” online at the request of a reporter. Really. It’s a long story, and you can listen to a version of it here; the abridged version is someone calling himself “Lice Lice Baby” claimed he would sell you “Giant Japanese Pubic Lice” as pets. He re-branded his crab lice as “Seamonkeys in your Pants.”
The French call pubic lice “papillon d’amour”, but for all the happy euphemistic talk about “the ultimate sharing of your love,” crab lice are blood-sucking parasites. At the time, my primary concern was pointing out that deliberately infesting yourself with pubic lice was probably not a very good idea, and a public health risk.
This somehow made me the go-to person online for pubic lice, which is not, frankly, an expertise I particularly aspired to. I was talking to someone recently about public lice (now a regular occurrence) and I realized that I didn’t know the specific mechanism by which pubic lice suck (aside from the fairly obvious suckage of being infested). I did a little research, and what I found out actually made pubic lice creepier. I did not think that was possible.
One of my primary resources was a paper with this wonderful title:
BURNS D.A. & SIMS T.A. (1988). A closer look at Pthirus pubis, British Journal of Dermatology, 118 (4) 497-503. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.1988.tb02458.x
A closer look, indeed! This is a scanning electron micrograph of the sucking end of a crab louse, magnified about 1000 times.
Pthirus pubis is a member of the Order Anoplura or ‘sucking lice’. It is a solenophage (vessel feeder—from the Greek ‘pipe’ + ‘eating’), introducing its mouthparts directly into a blood vessel to withdraw blood. The components of the mouthparts responsible for probing the skin and piercing a blood vessel are kept withdrawn within the head unless the insect is feeding… In the front of the head is a small, snout-like tube, the haustellum, which is soft, eversible, and armed with teeth. Figure 5 shows the haustellum retracted, and the buccal teeth are clearly visible.
But wait! There’s more!
When the louse is about to feed… the buccal teeth rotate outwards. The teeth cut into the epidermis [skin] with a movement compared to that of a rotary saw, and the haustellum is gradually driven into the dermis. It eventually comes to rest with the buccal teeth fully everted, anchoring the mouthparts in the skin….The stylets are advanced into the dermis as a single bundle and probe for a small blood vessel. Once the stylet bundle has pierced a blood vessel feeding begins. [emphasis mine]
If you haven’t already unconsciously crossed your legs while reading this, this next bit should do the trick. One of the characteristic signs of pubic lice feeding is little blue spots on the skin. It’s a combination of blood leaking out after that mouth-needle is withdrawn and a reaction to the saliva of the louse. Another symptom of a crab louse infestation is described as “black powder in your underwear.” That powder is your dried up blood, after the louse has digested it and pooped it out.
I’m not sure that anyone besides me really needed to know this information, but it is a fascinating example of how insect mouth parts have evolved to make them highly successful external parasites!
Politics delivered a bizzare insect soundbite this week. A GOP leader was being questioned about policies mandating medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds, limiting access to birth control, and other recent policy initiatives considered anti-woman. His response?
Priebus rejected the idea that Republicans are waging a war on women.
“If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “It’s a fiction.”
How the HELL do you explain that thought path??
Women –> Sluts –> Uterus control –> CATERPILLARS.
Also? Denying there is a war on women only works if, in fact, there isn’t a war on women. Hundreds of bills are being introduced all over the US that limit women’s rights. Just last week Wisconsin quietly revoked an equal pay bill.
The analogy with insects doesn’t work either if, in fact, there actually is a GOP war on caterpillars. Let’s continue to use Wisconsin as an example. Wisconsin sponsors a major project to kill the Gypsy Moth. Go look. It’s WAR, people. There are areas clearly marked for “suppression.”
Texas recently cut health services to many women. They also are persecuting cactus moth caterpillars. In fact, there is a tri-state consortium devoted to killing these caterpillars; here’s some representative language: “In the wake of the Cactoblastis, only death and destruction are found, presenting a threat to human welfare…” Sounds pretty warlike to me!
Michigan, a state that recently banned same-sex partner benefits, has quarantines in many areas, and routinely stops people with firewood for warrantless searches. What are they looking for? GRUBS. The Emerald Ash Borer is marked for elimination. You are even encouraged to turn in suspicious characters by calling a hotline.
The GOP-controlled House introduced a “Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act” in 2011 that would reduce pesticide regulation, including removing some pieces of the Clean Water Act that currently restrict pesticides in watersheds.
There is evidence of flip-flopping by Mitt Romney on the caterpillar issue. He labeled a project to control the invasive species of winter moths as “porkbarrel spending” in 2006, and didn’t fund it. His current position on funding the War on Caterpillars is unclear.
Clearly, the War on Caterpillars is REAL. Of course, there is a reason why caterpillars are targeted by both the GOP and farmers.* It’s simple math that goes all the way back to Malthus. Populations have the potential to grow faster than their food supply. So, if you want to control an insect pest, you attack its reproductive cycle.
But why in the world would you want to prevent women from having access to birth control, or the ability to control their own bodies? This seems counter-productive for a bunch of fiscal conservatives. How will we provide water and food for a expanding population? How will those babies be employed in the future when they grow up? How will all those kids be educated? We are building more prisons than schools, which doesn’t bode well for anyone’s future prospects.
Obviously, I think women should have control over their bodies because it’s a basic human right (recognized since 1968 by the UN, in fact). It just seems like the current focus on womb control is very short-sighted from a fiscal/living-in-the-real-world point of view, as well.
Legislation was introduced to require women to provide a written explanation about why they wanted birth control to their employers. Legislation has been introduced to define you as pregnant 2 weeks before conception. Women who have miscarriages are charged with murder. This is some serious heinous fuckery, people. It’s 2012. The state should not be getting all up in my lady business.
There is an upside to all this. The best thing to come out of the GOP war on caterpillars was the explosion of #GOPWarOnCaterpillars on Twitter. This charge was led by the wonderful John Scalzi, who decided see if he could get the tag to become a “trending topic”. Here are some of my favorites–feel free to suggest more slogans in the comments!
*Actually, these are all invasive species and it’s ok with me if they kill them. But that kind of detracts from my point, so it’s a parenthetical down here.
I Could Not Make This Shit Up If I Tried.
I’ve mentioned before that the nickname Bug Girl is occasionally used by people that are not me. But this one is a new and unusual twist.
I think they look remarkably like my avatar.
What do you think?
You may have heard that I told a story at the ScienceOnline2012 conference. If you missed it, here you go!
Everything I said is true; there are even photos. (Think carefully before you click this link. You’ve been warned.)
Ben Lillie’s story is right after mine, and is very different, and incredibly powerful. I got a little verklempt. Ben now runs The StoryCollider, which is an amazing project to collect science stories.
I had been mentally drafting something about storytelling and science, but then Emily at This View of Life wrote something so spot on in summary of ScienceOnline I defer to her:
“I think that this tendency to focus on the sexy or the gross, the morbid or the taboo, is not just a symptom of our four days of very little sleep, more than a little alcohol in some cases and a deep sense of intellectual and cultural overstimulation.
No, this is an integral part of who we are as a group. We focus on duck penises because we almost have to.
We are all story tellers, whether scientists, journalists or educators. We take data and create hypotheses. We take facts and construct narratives. We take a curriculum and transform it into inspiration.
What she said. Go read the rest.
I’ll try to put together a more meaningful summary of the Science Online conference later this week, but for the moment I’m enjoying the accomplishment of briefly trending on Twitter. Even if it is for telling a story about Seamonkeys in your Pants.
I read a lot of strange stuff on the internet. I mean, I’ve covered Extraterrestrial Cows and Mail-order public lice. But I really don’t expect to run into silly conspiracy stuff in Forbes, of all places.
In an article entitled “The Black Death: Longing for the Good Old Days,” James Taylor ties together global warming denialism, DDT boosterism, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Black Death (i.e. Bubonic Plague) to make…a really big pile of something that steams.
He suggests that everything was hunky dory when the climate was hot, but when things got cold–OMGPLAGUE:
“What brought about the Black Death? A thousand years ago, Europe was experiencing a golden age. The fair climate of the Medieval Warm Period, with temperatures similar to or warmer than today’s climate, stimulated bountiful crop production, supported unprecedented population growth,….
Longer winters and cooler, shorter summers decimated crop production throughout Europe. The rains that fell were cold, persistent, and slow to dry up. Famine and plague, which had largely disappeared during the Medieval Warm Period, became the norm rather than the exception. And by 1350, the grim, cold climate brought about the dreaded Black Death.”
He goes on from this to imply that environmentalists want to curb global warming in order to kill us all by bringing back the Black Death. Oh, and malaria, but we’ll get to that part later.
I actually have spent a lot of time over the years researching Bubonic plague, and the 14th century European “Black Death” in particular. I have never read of climate being implicated as a cause for the European plagues. Never.
I would also like to point out that the Little Ice Age actually occurred several hundred years AFTER the period of the bubonic plague outbreaks in Europe. A recent review paper listed the start date around 1570. So, the dots he’s trying to connect, in addition to being unrelated factually, are also unrelated chronologically.
The more interesting theories about why the Black Death was so devastating to Medieval Europe center on increasing urbanization and commerce. In order to have a massive epidemic, you need populations of potential victims to be concentrated. If you get the plague in the middle of nowhere, you will die horribly…and that’s it. There is no one to transmit the plague TO.
On the other hand, if you have concentrations of people in cities and towns; and you have movement of both people and animals between cities and towns, then you have a situation that is ripe for an outbreak. If you add in poor sanitation, it’s a dream for a disease bacterium.
There is a well-documented timeline of outbreaks moving from Asia over to Italy, and then up through Europe. Rats in grain and rats in ships moving from place to place for commerce were probably the primary movers of the disease. (In case you’ve forgotten, fleas are the vector of plague between humans and other animals. In other words, fleas transmit the plague bacteria from infected people/rats to new victims.)
Mr. Taylor is a lawyer working for the Heartland Institute, which advocates for unregulated trade (and also says that cigarettes are harmless). Somehow he seems to have missed the obvious connection between free markets and plague. Hmm.
So, what else? Oh, the Malaria–right. From the article:
“Malaria was becoming a distant memory 50 years ago, but the World Health Organization now reports that over 200 million people contract the disease each year and nearly one million people die from the disease each year. A single, small application of DDT to the inside walls of a hut – in which malarial mosquitoes most frequently infect their victims – will keep malarial mosquitoes at bay for months, but environmental activists have forbidden this chemical infringement on The Natural Condition.”
Let’s start with that first sentence. 50 years ago, Malaria was becoming a memory for the US and Europe; they launched very successful campaigns to control mosquitoes. Malaria eradication was not, however, successful in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. In fact, some areas never were part of any Malarial control campaign. It’s certainly correct to say that too many people die of malaria each year; but it is not correct to say that more die now than in the past. If you look at WHO data for most regions, there is a clear downward trend. Global control of malaria has been slowed by resistance to treatment drugs, as well as mosquito resistance to DDT.
Which brings us to his next claim. In his second sentence, he claims that DDT can be applied to the walls of a “hut” and provide protection from malarial mosquitoes. News flash–not everyone lives in huts–your imperialism is showing. But, hey, let’s run with it.
This is an incorrect statement for a variety of reasons. Indoor Residential Spraying (IRS) is actually not a preferred methodology for the World Health Organization Malaria group; they specifically recommend against using the same chemical year after year. Increased resistance to pesticides is strongly tied to indoor sprays in the report I linked. A quote: ”it is unlikely that universal vector control coverage can be achieved in Africa by IRS alone.”
Taylor’s pollyanna approach ignores the the reality of DDT and malaria in the world today. A hundred countries currently have a malaria problem. It is patently absurd to think that one single chemical (and methodology) can solve a problem that is global in scope.
There isn’t only ONE species of malaria mosquito–there are dozens (And they don’t all bite you when you are inside). There is not just ONE kind of ecosystem in which people and malaria interact. Designing a malaria control methodology has to take into account the political, environmental, and socio-economic situation of a particular community. What, if any, data do we have on the resistance of the mosquitoes to insecticides? It is not a one-size-fits-all problem with one solution.
His last sentence is also untrue. DDT is part of current WHO treatment guidelines. It is not “forbidden”. But DDT is only one piece of a huge, huge complicated problem, and over-reliance on it can actually make things worse by leading to greater insecticide resistance.
What I want to know now is–Why did Forbes let this douche write an article full of BS that was VERIFIABLY FALSE? And what are they going to do about it?