Many animals, plants and even microbes have adopted survival strategies

My son has this theory, which he has been presenting with a mischievous smile, that the proliferation of selfies, the self-portrait/photograph typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone, is being promoted by the head-louse, which finds it a convenient method of finding new pastures as teens put their heads together. He even cites the claim by Marry McQuillan, the lice expert of the California-based treatment centre Nitless Noggins, that a strong link exists between teens taking group selfies and catching head lice.

While his logic may be a bit far-fetched, there can be no denying that the humble head-louse has amazing tricks up its sleeves for survival.

When our human forebears were fully covered with hair, like the apes, the lice had a great time wandering from head to foot. The louse’s domain, however, shrank when humans turned into “naked apes,” confining it to the lonely islands of hair on the head and other areas. Millennia later, when man learned to clothe himself, the louse rose to the occasion and evolved into a new form that specialised in surviving on human clothing — the body louse. Unlike the benign head louse that quietly claws itself to the hair roots and painlessly sucks small quanta of blood, the body louse also learned to transmit several infections including Typhus, a disease dreaded by the armies of the olden times.

In fact, Napolean’s retreat from Moscow ‘was started by a louse,’ according to the well known microbiologist Zinsser.

Many other animals, plants and even microbes are also known to have adopted brilliant survival strategies that also include modifying the lives of higher forms of life in their favour.

For example, a flat worm, Leucocohloridium macrostomum, that has the snail as an intermediate and song birds as its definitive host, has a brilliant way of moving from snail to bird. In the infective stage, the parasite migrates to the tentacles of snails, induces swelling and fast pulsation, and turns their colour deep green making them strikingly visible to birds.

Another avian parasite that has shrimp as its intermediate host, transforms the yellow-coloured shrimp to deep blue, rendering it highly visible and attractive to birds. The rabies virus enters the body of the victim through saliva that is transferred mostly by infected dogs into bite wounds. The virus travels along the nerves of the bitten animals to the brain, selectively accumulates in the limbic system housing the emotional centres. This turns the animal aggressive and makes it bite every animal or human in sight, spreading infection. These and a myriad other examples illustrate how complex the creatures that we dismiss as lowly and leading aimless lives, really are.

Lack of realisation that all forms of life may have a conscience has led to the idea that man has dominion over all flora and fauna of the planet. The survival tricks of lice and other lowly creatures clearly point out how wrong we are.

msaleemuddin47 @gmail.com

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