Cruelty cubed…

Author:  Matt Simon

Plight of the Living Dead coverWhen Tennyson wrote of “Nature, red in tooth and claw”, he was poetically protesting the seemingly meaningless cruelty of the natural world.  Despite his lamenting, he still managed to maintain his faith in God’s world of order.  I think it’s fair to speculate that if he’d known anything about parasitoid wasps and their ilk, he’d have lost it entirely.  Fortunately, science writer Matt Simon is willing to boldly go where few writers have gone, doubling down on cruelty and revealing a real-life menagerie of nightmares in Plight of the Living Dead.

Ampulex compressa photo

A jewel wasp guides a zombie cockroach to her lair.

Lest you think I exaggerate, I encourage you to read about Mr. Simon’s first entry, Ampulex compressa.  Also known as the jewel wasp, the female of the species literally performs brain surgery on the unfortunate cockroach of her choosing. Using her ovipositor to inject a specialized venom into the brain of her hapless victim, she can then lead the now docile roach – who is more than twice her size – to her lair.  She then lays a single egg, which produces a hungry larva that proceeds to eat the immobilized roach alive, eventually pupating inside its abdomen.

Tobaccco hornworm photo

A tobacco hornworm completely covered with wasp cocoons.

If crazy ass nature stories like this intrigue you, you are going to love, love, love this book.  Because Simon’s got dozens of them.  One is crazier than the next.  Throughout the book, he describes the countless ways that wasps or fungi or viruses have found to turn their victims into real-life zombies.

As the ominous title suggest, the author frequently refers to the zombie idea throughout the book, but bizarrely, it’s really not hype or hyperbole.  Repeatedly, he demonstrates how various parasites find a way to highjack the nervous system of a wide array of organisms – humans included – to try and perpetuate their own offspring.

It’s a mind-blowing and crazy topic, for sure.  Fortunately, Simon is up to the task.  Bursting with enthusiasm and humor, his prose is often as crazy as the topic.  Whether he’s talking about tobacco hornworm caterpillars covered with wasp cocoons or cicadas consumed from the inside by a fungus, he keeps the dialogue riveting, all the while backing it up with solid evolutionary science.

While many of these stories are sure to give you the creeps, at an intellectual level parasitism really represents the very pinnacle of evolution.  The myriad ways that countless organisms – probably more than half the organisms on the planet – manage to further their own reproductive interests by taking advantage of their hapless fellow earthlings is nothing short of amazing.  That sense of wonder is on full display in Plight of the Living Dead.  It’s sure to entertain and quite possibly freak you out.  Highly recommended.

— D. Driftless

Wasp and roach photo by JMGM (CC BY-SA 4.0)/Hornworm photo by Jamesdcarroll (CC BY-SA 4.0)

For another insane insect book, check out Dave’s review of The Sting of the Wild.

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