There’s a lot of sea animals that make you think,”Did something go wrong…? “ Hagfish mucus is 100,000 times softer than jelly. You have the deep-sea lizardfish, a big-toothed, sex-switching, stealthy-attacking predator. You can even go from “regular eel” to “nightmare fuel” swallowing eel in seconds.

but maybe no portrait tongue-eating lice. The name speaks for itself: this nasty parasite survives the world by eating the tongues of other animals.

You probably didn’t know the magic of tongue-eating lice for the rest of your life, but that’s all for today. So buckle up, close your jaws, and read on to learn more about this unusual isopod.

What are tongue-eating lice?

Tongue-eating lice (Cymothoa) is an isopod or crustacean found in the Cymothoidae family. They are parasites, which means their survival depends on another “host” organism, and it is harmful to them. Nor are they the only parasites in the Cymothoidae family reunion – cymoithoids are all ectoparasites, meaning they live on the outside of their host rather than inside, and are mostly fish hosts.

Tongue-eating lice in clownfishTongue-eating lice in clownfish
© Christian Glore

Tongue-eating lice are found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and only grow to about an inch long. They are hermaphrodites, which means they start out as males and then become females later in life. Of course, that means women are bigger than men. As it turns out, it’s the females that give the parasite its iconic name.

Here’s how it works: A juvenile tick will sneak through the fish’s gills, waiting for another tick to emerge. Once there are two or more, one of them will grow and become a female. The female will crawl out of the gills and up through the throat to the mouth, where it clamps her strong legs to the fish’s tongue. Each leg has a specially evolved sharp appendage that allows it to hold itself tightly.

Now the fun begins (for isopods, not so much for fish). The female stays in place and cuts the blood vessels in the tongue. Without blood flow to the organ, the tongue eventually withers and falls off, leaving only the parasite. The female will then go on to enjoy the blood and mucus of the fish, as happy as a blood-sucking clam.

Once she’s established, the remaining males in the gills will mate with the larger females, who then spit out many tiny new parasites from the fish. These new horror bundles will go with the flow until they too can defend themselves in the gills of another unsuspecting host.

what happened to the fish?

Believe it or not, this highly invasive activity won’t kill the fish. It’s not a good time, to be sure, but the fish are able to use the parasite like a prosthetic organ. They occupy a wide variety of fish, including herring, snapper, and other common species (so keep an eye out for fishing on your next vacation).

If you’re concerned that you might lose your tongue after a quick dip in the ocean, don’t worry.Tongue-eating lice do not infect humans (although if you really want to keep yourself up at night, feel free to read more about human oral parasites were able get). However, they may be present in the fish you order from the seafood market – so always keep your non-gift fish in your mouth!

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