If you’re planning on eating soon, perhaps you should hold off reading this right now—you may lose your appetite. I’ve been doing some work on fish diseases over the past days, and suddenly find myself in a murky world I hardly knew existed.

When I drove across Tennessee in February, I tuned into a radio show where some guy told the host he was a fish vet. Everyone had a chortle about that, since vets either deal with pets or cattle, horses, and the like. But fish vets not only exist, they’re very important.

Cat got your tongue? Nope, in this case it's a critter called Ceratothoa.

Cat got your tongue? Nope, in this case it’s a critter called Ceratothoa.

Take the guy in the picture. He is in fact a she, and belongs to the same group as your friendly lobsters and crabs. The lady, if you can call her that, given that mean old look, is not a tramp—she’s a parasite. Her close relatives are called isopods.

I have fond memories of isopods, because where I grew up the garden had loads of woodlice and ladybugs. For some reason, I have a feeling there’s a lot less ladybugs now, but maybe I just don’t look for them like I did—I was a lot closer to the ground then. Oh well, give it a few years.

A woodlouse is called ‘bicho de conta‘ in Portuguese, I don’t know why, but I think it means ‘pretend’ rather than ‘count’. I used to love to touch them and watch them roll into a ball, performing some kind of crustacean Pilates. Years later in Guernsey, one of the English Channel Islands, I came across another little one called Ligia. hidden in damp crevices on the pier at St. Peter Port.  We had to do some experiments on the poor things, which involved painting their eyes with nail varnish, something to do with orientation. I felt pretty bad about that, and I can’t remember what essential bit of biology it taught me—can’t have been that important.

More recently, I’ve come to realize why so many of these guys are called lice. Ceratothoa, the gal in the picture, is very fond of gilthead. Variously called orata in Italy, and dorada or dourada in Spain and Portugal, around one hundred thousand tons of these fish are grown in cages every year in southern Europe.

Meet the Fokkers. Big mama, her other half, and the little ones.

Meet the Fokkers. Big mama, her other half, and the little fokkers.

The parasites go into the fish, and big mama eats the tongue. You need to understand that parasites have a vested interest in keeping the host alive, and in reasonably good health. After all, that’s their daily bread.

When mama eats the tongue, or perhaps atrophies it, but in any case replaces it, the gilthead can still hunt, it can still eat. If it lives in a cage, it can still chew the pellets that the farmer provides. Mama doesn’t just replace the tongue, she also brings her harem with her. A man harem is a wierd notion for humans, where guys are more promiscuous than women.

But in many animals, the female produces not one egg a month, but millions of eggs. That’s a whole lotta love. Mama’s a bigamist, and she keeps her guys in their place. That’s one either side, but way back. Actually, mama’s a transsexual. She starts out as a male, and she, er… he, comes in through the gills.

The usual family arrangement is that the male lives in the gill chambers, and when he has a Lou Reed moment, he takes a walk on the wild side and then he was a she. The parasites don’t just like gilthead. They love bass, be it the European variety, barramundi, or mahi-mahi.

Mama becomes the fish’s tongue. Her two toy boys live in the gill chambers. Rumor has it that on hot steamy nights the fish mouth becomes a boudoir—a whole new twist on oral sex. The babies leave the comfort of mama’s abdomen and sally forth in search of new fish to fry.

Fry is the operative word here. Or grill. Next time you’re out for sushi, stay away from dark booths.

And make sure you leave room for mama.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.


One Response to “Fear”

  1. Miriam Says:

    When I was a little girl, I learnt from my great-grandmother that the name ‘bicho de conta’ comes exactly from the fact that they roll into a ball when you touch them. In Portuguese, “conta” can also have the meaning of a ball of a necklace (remember the expression “contas do rosário”)


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