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Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures Hardcover – September 21, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0684856384 ISBN-10: 0684856387 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 298 pages
  • Publisher: The Free Press; 1 edition (September 21, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684856387
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684856384
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (104 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,250,048 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Many books provoke a visceral reaction, but few really make you itch. Science writer Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex does just that, provoking a deliciously creepy sense of paranoia in the reader as it explores a long-misunderstood realm of science. While entomologists love to announce that there are more species of insects than all other animals combined, few parasitologists choose to trump that by reminding us that "parasites may outnumber free-living species four to one." That figure is based on the multicellular chauvinism of the 19th century, which excludes bacteria and fungi from consideration (athlete's foot, anyone?), but Zimmer looks at the E. coli in our guts as well as the worms, flukes, mites, and other critters that earn a healthy living at our expense--and the expense of our domesticated plants and animals.

The author traveled to Africa to see firsthand the effects of sleeping sickness and river blindness. He learned from physicians and researchers that the parasites that wreak so much havoc are much more than the simple degenerates we've taken them for. Their complex adaptations to their environments--us--are as lovely and awe-inspiring as any eye or wing. The examples of hormonal and other behavioral control of hosts, causing changes in feeding habits and other life essentials, are chilling when personalized. Zimmer knows his subject well, and his writing, while robust and affecting, never descends to the all-too-easy gross-out. You wouldn't expect to find respect for a tapeworm, but Parasite Rex will show you how beautiful Earth's truly dominant life forms are. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

One of the year's most fascinating works of popular science is also its most disgusting. From tapeworms to isopods to ichneumon wasps, "parasites are complex, highly adapted creatures that are at the heart of the story of life." Zimmer (At the Water's Edge) devotes his second book to the enormous variety of one- and many-celled organisms that live on and inside other animals and plants. The gruesome trypanosomes that cause sleeping sickness had nearly been routed from Sudan when the country's civil war began: now they're back. Costa Rican researcher Daniel Brooks has discovered dozens of parasites, including flies that lay eggs in deer noses: "snot bots." And those are only the creatures from the prologue. Zimmer discusses how the study of parasites began, with 19th-century discoveries about their odd life cycles. (Many take on several forms in several generations, so that a mother worm may resemble her granddaughter, but not her daughter.) He looks at how parasites pass from host to host, and how they defeat immune systems and vice versa. Many parasites alter their hosts' behavior: Toxoplasma makes infected rats fearless, thus more likely to be eaten by cats, who will then pick up the microbe. Quantifiable "laws of virulence" lead parasites to become nasty enough to spread, yet not so nasty as to wipe out all their hosts. And eons of coevolution can affect both partners: howler monkeys may avoid violent fights because screwworms can render the least scratch fatal. Two final chapters address parasites in human medicine and agriculture. Not only are parasites not all bad, Zimmer concludes in this exemplary work of popular science, but we may be parasites, tooDand we have a lot to learn from them about how to manage earth, the host we share. Illus. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

I write books about science. Nature fascinates me, as does its history.

So far, I've written twelve books, including Parasite Rex and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. In addition to my books, I also write regularly about science for The New York Times, as well as for magazines including National Geographic and Wired. I've won awards for my work from the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My blog, The Loom, is published by National Geographic Magazine (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/blog/the-loom).

Customer Reviews

Carl Zimmer is a science writer with a passion for his subjects.
Penny White
While we may recoil at the term "parasite", Zimmer identifies but one villain in this book.
Stephen A. Haines
One thing's for sure,this is probably the best book i've ever read in any category.
Norman Pile

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

130 of 132 people found the following review helpful By Eric Vondy on December 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is one of those rare books that can totally alter how you look at the world. Read it and you begin seeing parasites in every skin blemish you have. See a cat catch a mouse and all you can do is think about all the parasites its about the ingest. You find youself wanting to visit the parasite museum in Maryland to see all the horrible creatures you've been reading about. You begin thinking that Zimmer's right and that parasites have driven the evolution of the world. You begin wodering if Stephen King has read it and if so what novel he's writing. You begin wondering if there's thousands of little cysts in your brain and that your life goal of going on safari in Africa may need revaluated. You imagine what its like to extract a guinea worm from your leg. You question whether or not you will ever eat crab again. You wonder whether the reason you've been so hungry of late is because there's a sixty foot long tapeworm inside your intestines. It's a stunning book and an important one. Zimmer found something obvious that's been overlooked in biology and if he's right will change the way we view life. Survival of the individual will be changed to survival of the creature living inside the indiviual. For example, there is a parasite that gets inside a snail, takes it over, forces it climb a blade of grass and wait for a grazing cow to wander by and eat it. The cow is where the parasite wants to end up. The snail is just a vessel to reach the cow. The young of the parasite end up in cow pies which the snail eats and the cycle begins again. The complex world of flukes and tapeworms, of enslaved crabs and suicidal snails, of sleeping sickness and malaria, is like a car wreck: you want to turn away but you can't, you're compelled to look fearful of what you might see. As you explore the book you learn that these creatures are much more than revolting. I can't say you'll ever view them with sympathy, you can view them with respect -- and hopefully at a safe distance.
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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on November 14, 2004
Format: Paperback
Once considered a "degenerate" form of life, parasites are being seen as important indicators of how evolution has progressed over 4 billion years. Zimmer credits them with being the driving force for biological diversity. He substantiates this claim with a sweeping, evocative survey of what is known today about parasites. That, he regretfully concedes, is little enough. What is known is that many early conceptions about parasites needed to be thrown aside as more information about this highly adaptable and widely variable range of organisms emerges.

While we may recoil at the term "parasite", Zimmer identifies but one villain in this book. Ray Lankester, a devoted Edwardian-era evolutionist, postulated that parasites were a "regressive" form of organism. He thought they shed evolutionary advantages as they simplified their bodies through their life cycles. Lankester thus set the tone for generations - biologists avoided studying parasites as offering no additional information revealing evolution's processes. Zimmer explains that since parasites are predators, it was thought they ought to follow the patterns of other predators - stalking prey like lions, or following scent gradients like sharks.

Instead, as more about them came to light, it was revealed how adaptive parasites are. Some, in fact, have developed the talent of making "prey" come to them. One fluke invades a snail early in its career. In an intermediate, but distinctive form, it then moves to an ant. Residing in the ant's brain, at some point it directs the ant to climb a grass stalk. There it waits for the grass, along with the ant and itself, to be eaten by a cow. The fluke cruises through the cow's stomach before taking up residence in the liver as adults, yet another body form.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Haseeb on June 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
I was drawn to this book orignially out of the idea that things so small can cause so much damage and or alter larger animals in ways some would find hard to believe. One of the previous reviewers mentioned something about sacculina (a parasitic barnicle that attacks crabs). Reading about how sacculina castrates its host and makes it care for its young was one of the things that got me interested in reading this fascinating book. Sacculina is only one of many fascinating parasites discussed however.
Many are familiar with parasites such as cuckcoos, tape worms and trichinella but few have heard of parasites such as the lancet fluke and even fewer are familiar with its life cycle and what it does to its host. In terms of the spooky element, I think Dicrocoelium dendriticum (the lancet fluke) ranks as one of the top villains given in the book. The lancet fluke has three different hosts, namely the snail, the ant and cow or other grazers. As an adult, the lancet fluke spends its time in the gut of a cow where it lays its eggs. The eggs are then deposited on the ground with the cow's feces then snails eat the eggs which hatch in its intestines. The baby flukes bore through the snail's gut emerging from the snails slimy body and onto the ground where they attract the attention of ants. The ants eat these slime balls and become infected. The flukes then make the ants climb up the highest blade of grass they can find and lock their mandibles onto the top of the blade hanging until they are eaten by a grazer to continue its life cycle. There are a few interesting details which I intentionally left out.
Only one parasite in the book made me cringe and that was with candiru. Candiru is a thin fish found in the rivers of Latin America.
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