14 November 2011

Lovecraftian biology

A friend of mine mentioned that presenting science topics with Oatmeal-style goofy images might make them more entertaining. But instead I turned some science into a tale in the style of H.P. Lovecraft, because I'm not good with directions.

Our story takes place in a small, insular community nestled among the trees. It's a place often overlooked, but the residents are fine with that. They're content to go about their own business within the community, and don't much care for outsiders. They work with a singular devotion to maintain their homes, raise their children, and provide for their kin.

Little do they know, however, that lurking in unknown spaces—spaces beyond their comprehension—is a mindless horror that seeks to use their bodies and their minds for its own sinister purposes. Its terrible spores have drifted unseen, but soon they will find a suitable host and begin the community's monstrous transformation.

It begins inconspicuously enough. Some begin to notice small changes in the behavior of one of their neighbors. His movements don't seem quite right, and he seems to have developed an abnormal interest in high places. Their failure to take further action is understandable given their quaint sensibilities, but it will ultimately be their undoing.

The affected individual only gets worse. He spends most of his time up high, as if waiting for something, though no one can say what. Those close to him begin to notice a physical transformation, and it almost seems as though he's being eaten away... from the inside.

Finally the alien being that has been living within, feeding on, and controlling their neighbor senses that the conditions are right and initiates the final stage. It is past the need of masquerading as a member of the community.

From atop its perch, it bursts through the head of its lifeless host. The rouse is over, but the motionless husk of its host will yet serve as nourishment. The horrible protrusion that grows from the head is as terrible in purpose as it is in form. The goal is simple: propagation.

The helpless and still unaware residents below are doomed. The spores will spill forth and take control of anyone who comes into contact with them. They too will serve the hideous parasite in its ghastly efforts, and the spores that burst from their corpses will float empty-minded on the breeze until they happen upon the next hapless community. If they're lucky they'll avoid annihilation by noticing the signs in the infected and stopping the horror before it has a chance to begin.


Cheerful stuff, eh? Now what if I told you all that is true? “Shut your lying yap,” you'd say. But then I'd tell you that—misleading illustrations aside—what I've described is more-or-less what actually happens to ant colonies that are infected by the fungal parasite Ophiocordyceps unilaterali.  

When a spore of the fungus finds an ant it will infiltrate its body, start to feed off of it, and yes, it's able to get the ant to go where it wants. It will compel the ant to climb up to a leaf, where the ant will clamp down with a death grip from its mandibles. When the appropriate conditions of temperature and humidity arise, a fungal fruiting body bursts from the ant's head. It'll then release more spores in an attempt to repeat the process.

As I alluded to in the end of my little story, though, its potential victims have evolved the ability to tell when one of their own is infected, and they'll move them away from the colony to avoid infecting the rest of them. It's a fantastic little zombie drama playing out under our feet. And as you can see, all you have to do is change the ants to people and have the fungus come from outer space, and it's something straight out of Lovecraftian horror.

Notes: I tried to keep the text of the story pretty ambiguous so that it was as true as possible to the actual facts of the situation while also evoking a tale from Lovecraft (hence needing to describe it as a "community" constantly instead of something more specific like village). A couple things are described more for dramatic effect, such as the implication that the host visits high spots more than once; as far as I know the ant will only make the climb once, but I thought it was better for the suspense if it sounded more prolonged. I think the biggest discrepancy isn't one having to do with the mechanism of the parasite, but rather in that Patient Zero is referred to as male. In an actual ant colony, all the workers are female, and there are just a few males buzzing around to mate. I thought it would break the already precious suspension of belief to refer to it as a "she," though, since pretty much every principal character in Lovecraft is male.

As for the drawings, I had much grander plans until I actually got started and remembered that I'm rubbish with line drawings and drawing from imagination in general. When I was first imagining it, there were going to be many more illustrations that held to a more particular narrative, with a protagonist gradually discovering Patient Zero's horrible secret. There would have been an establishing shot to let you know the last image up there is supposed to be in a church steeple, and another showing the fruiting body emerging from the window silhouetted against the moon as it released its spores. Yup, it was gonna be great. A real shame I realized I wouldn't be able to draw it. :P Speaking of the last drawing up there, that's supposed to be a creeping mat of mycelium coming out of his mouth, not vomit or something. Also, my scanner was being dumb so I had to use my camera phone, which is why the image quality is so weird.

1 comment:

  1. I love you. Can you explain MORE science to me like this?