Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Zombies Pt 1: Zombies in nature

Zombies. They're quite popular these days. Movies like Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland, or Residence Evil are everywhere, depicting flesh eating creatures going on a killing spree--either because of a virus, chemical, radiation or some other paranormal explanation. Even the CDC got in on the action and specialized their web-page to prepare you for the zombie apocalypse.

But in reality, zombies have a whole different meaning. The creole word ''zombi' is derived from Nzambi, a West African deity, coming into use in 1929 after the publication of The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook's. The book describes the first 'zombie' Seabrook came across:

    "The eyes were the worst. It was not my imagination. They were in truth like the eyes of a dead man, not blind, but staring, unfocused, unseeing. The whole face, for that matter, was bad enough. It was vacant, as if there was nothing behind it. It seemed not only expressionless, but incapable of expression."

Haitian voodoo priests, known as Bokors, study and use black magic to resurrect the deceased. According to local lore, a bokor captures a victim's ti bon ange, or the part of the soul directly connected to an individual, to create a zombie. What the Bokor uses, however, is a powder issued to the victim orally that is often called coup padre. After analyzing the powder, scientists found tetrodoxin (a poison from the puffer fish), a marine toad that also produces a toxic substance, a hyla tree frog, and sometimes, human remains as main ingredients. In addition, some contain other plant and animal ingredients, like lizards and spiders, which would be likely to irritate the skin. Some even included ground glass.

Once the powder gets into the bloodstream, the victim's heart rate begins to slow to a near stop and he/she is perceived as 'dead', despite them only being paralyzed. Thinking the person dead, the public would bury him/her. The victim would then be exhumed by the Bokor. Although alive, the victim's memory would be messed up badly and they are said to be transformed into a mindless drone, often said to be put to work in the fields as slaves.

There are also natural sources of zombie-nism that can be found. Recently, a stalk of fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani was found growing out of a "zombie" ant's head in Brazil. The fungus was found to infect an ant and take over its brain. Once the ant gets to an ideal location for the fungi to grow and spread their spores, the ant is killed.

Another natural "zombie" is created in South America by a female phorid fly. With the use of a needle-like appendage, the female fly will inject their egg into a fire ant. The egg grows and the larva migrates to the ant's head, living there for weeks as it eats at the brain. Sometimes, the ant is compelled to move away from its colony to avoid attack by the other ants. Once it's grown, the fly decapitates its host, exiting through the ant's head.

There's also the case of a parasitic jewel wasp that uses a venom injected into a cockroach's brain to inhibit it of free will. The venom was found to block a chemical substance called octopamine (a brain substance that places insects in an alert state, inspires them to move, and allows them to perform demanding physical tasks) in the cockroach's brain. Unable to fight back, the "zombie" cockroach can be pulled into the wasp's underground lair where an egg is laid in its abdomen. Much like with the fire ant, the larva eats the still living cockroach from the inside out in about seven to eight days.

These are just a few instances of natural zombie-nism and how it could occur. How do you feel about pop culture's obsession with the brain-eating zombies?

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