Being at the top of the food chain doesn’t mean you’ve got it all figured out. Sure, it’s nice to slither through the woods, swim in the water, or lurk in a burrow, knowing that nothing can eat you. But like everything else in this world, being a predator has its bugs. Literally.
I’ve selected a few photos from my archives to document that even fierce predators aren’t untouchable. There is, in fact, a group of animals that stands a little apart on the food chain: parasites!
(If you don’t like creepy-crawlies, best to click away to a cuddlier article now.)
Just imagine. The ground on which the pyramid stands is made up of soil, then photosynthesizing plants, followed by consumers of higher orders. And at the very top, the apex predators. Matter and its associated energy flow continuously from the ground to the top. At the same time, however, the pyramid is being eroded at every moment by parasites – organisms that simply take a bite out of other creatures without necessarily killing them.
The role of the parasite is a very popular one in nature. We don’t have to look far for an example. Humans have a wide range of parasites. A large proportion of them are parasites that belong to us alone. We don’t share them with other organisms.
It’s the same with other creatures. Every living thing has a large number of parasites of its own – including the parasites themselves. Para-ception!
Consider the photo above, for example. I was cruising the waters of one of the Amazon’s many tributaries in a motorized canoe, mostly looking for birds to photograph, when the caiman caught my eye. Turning the motor off, I approached the resting animal.
I didn’t want the caiman to dive, so I kept my distance. I had a 300mm f/4E PF VR lens on my Nikon D500. The focal length was still not long enough, so I quickly attached a 1.4x teleconverter. This gave me enough reach to start shooting.
Earlier I had noticed through the binoculars that the caiman’s head was covered in parasitic flies. Their blood-filled abdomens were visible from a distance. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this. The black caiman I had photographed earlier in a similar location was similarly parasitized.
These flies seem to find their hosts only on the water. None of the little blood-sucking creatures tried to attack me on land. But when I swam in the river and turned into a caiman, the situation changed. At that moment, I had to face their attempts to feed on my tasty, exotic, nutritious Central European blood.
Another pleasant encounter of a similar nature took place in Australia. In northern Queensland, I was searching the rainforest for the Buff-breasted Paradise-kingfisher. But can you see an entirely different animal in the photo above? I almost didn’t! It’s a really big Scrub Python.
Although the snake had almost escaped my attention, it certainly hadn’t escaped the attention of the dozens of mosquitoes that had settled on its head. Snakes, like all animals, exhale carbon dioxide. And that’s what mosquitoes can detect from tens of meters away. Great camouflage doesn’t matter here.
After taking the wide-angle photo above, I swapped to my Nikon 400mm f/2.8 to get some close-ups of its parasite-infested head. I lay down on the ground and searched for a suitable angle through the obscuring vegetation.
In my excitement, I hadn’t noticed that another parasite was slowly moving towards me. This time, the leech’s sensitive sensors picked up my scent. It was one thing after another! Some people would be freaked out, and I understand – but as a biologist, I couldn’t have been happier.
Life in the wild is no fairy tale, so this story doesn’t have a happy ending either. At least not for the last of the trio of predators I want to introduce to you today. The big forest spiders, the tarantulas, may not be very popular with humans. But try to feel for this poor creature. Its story is infinitely worse than that of the caiman or the python.
In the mountain forest of Ecuador, I witnessed this fascinating scene. A huge blue wasp dragging an even bigger tarantula with it. This wasp belongs to the genus Pepsis and, with a body length of up to 5 cm, is one of the largest wasps in the world. Its awe-inspiring sting can cause some of the most intense pain of any insect.
The wasps feed on tarantulas, but it’s not the adults that eat them – it’s the larvae. The wasp paralyzes the tarantula by stinging it. Then, the immobilized tarantula is dragged to the wasp’s burrow, where it lays a single egg on the spider’s abdomen. This later hatches into a larva, which burrows into the spider’s gut. It then eats the spider alive, cleverly avoiding vital organs. Nature is no picnic.
The so-called Tarantula Hawks are not actually parasites. They are parasitoids. This strategy does not spare its host. Well, don’t you feel sorry for the poor tarantula? Incidentally, adult wasps feed exclusively on plant food – nectar. So, maybe you could say they grow out of their parasitic ways.
Naturally, a macro lens was needed to capture this scene. In this case, I used the Sigma 105mm f/2.8. It wasn’t easy to lie on the ground and keep up with a determined wasp dragging its prey. Both kept disappearing into the vegetation. Fortunately, there was a small, relatively bare area with little rough terrain, and I took advantage of it.
As you can see, even the life of a predator is not without its pitfalls. On the contrary, the rule of “eat or be eaten” applies without exception. Sometimes, parasites only take their share bit by bit. Other times, all the host leaves behind is an empty exoskeleton. Life is hard, no matter what role a creature plays in it. But I think it’s endlessly fascinating, too.