Parasite got your tounge?

So you’re a slimy mackerel. You are cruising along, sucking in the ocean and nibbling weed off the rocks. You snavel a chunk of food as it passes by and unknowingly ingest a parasite. This parasite is different though. It doesn’t seek refuge in your gut, shelter under a scale or grapple you with its suckers to hitch a free ride. This little beast eats your tongue!

Aptly named, these freaky characters are called ‘tongue biters’ – imaginative name really for something that bites onto tongues. Anyway, the people that do these complicated things have provided the tongue biter parasite with the mandatory hard to remember scientific name of Cymothoa exigua.

Eating tounges makes him happy

So to the gory details:

–          The best bit is obviously the tongue biting aspect. Once in your mouth the first task is to hook its claws into your tongue and start chewing away. Once the tongue has been reduced to a stump the parasite gets a good grip and becomes your new tongue. Now there’s something awesome about that for ingenuity. Firstly, the parasite can continue to sap off its host, and second, it also gets first chomp of anything the fish tries to swallow.

–          These guys aren’t small. I’ve seen them grow up to around 4cm long and 1cm wide. That’s a chunky parasite and I’ve even used them as bait to catch slimy mackerel and yakkas who obviously don’t know better.

–          Even their reproductive habits are creepy. I haven’t found any research on this but I’m sure they give birth to live young. I know because I found one with a bulging belly, put on my taxidermy hat and dissected it. It vomited out at least fifty live young, their black eyes peering out of the slithering mess. They were moving and I felt sick.

# Here’s an update: no need to research the live young factor, I have proof! check this out… 

Mamma biter spewing out her live young
Mamma biter spewing out her live young

It seems that almost every yakka, slimy mackerel or trevally I catch on the coast around Jervis Bay has a tongue biter or two (hence the reason I don’t feel bad using them for bait). I’d be interested to know if people have found them in other species as well. The first with a new species gets a tongue biter in the mail.

There is a happy ending though – these guys don’t regard humans as potential victims. If they did, I’d be staying at home on Friday nights!

On that note, here’s a funny cartoon about what would happen if we were suseptable to the odd tounge biter invasion.

Happy fishing folks, and keep those mouths closed when you sleep…

Dan, March 2012

PS – I must thank the Museum of South Australia in Radelaide for properly introducing me to this little critter who I have been meeting for years. Anyone who is into all things aquatic should drop into the museum if you get a chance. It’s super.

PPS – sorry to subscribers who received a blank email on that last version. WordPress obviously decided it wasn’t worth reading and removed all text.

Tounge biter yakka

12 thoughts on “Parasite got your tounge?

  1. Hi there,

    I had never heard of them, and that was great!
    Now I will have a very bad sleep at night…

    Have a good day.

    1. Sorry about the nightmares mate! Btw, I had a look at your blog, it’s great. You obviously enjoy the art as much as we do.

    1. I’ve also found them hitchin on a ludericks toungue. Didn’t notice him until I had bled the fish. I suppose the little bugger knew the gig was up and decided to make a run for it across the breakwall I was fishing. First and only one I’ve seen so far.

  2. Thats interesting, luderick is a new one for me and I’ve never heard of striped scat. It would be good to know where you fish. Sometimes down the NSW South Coast i’d put money on just about every silver trevally having one of these parasites.

  3. As a segway (thats how it should be spelt anyway) – I just happened to hear Dr Karl on Triple J asking if fish had tounges. I called him up and told him about the tounge biter over the airwaves. I think it might have been a bit gruesome for radio because I got cut off before I could talk about fish with teeth that can crush bones… Random!

  4. I really like what you guys are up too. Such clever work and exposure!

    Keep up the awesome works guys I’ve added you guys to our blogroll.

  5. I have found alot of them in mackerel and they have been of that size easy.I have also found alot in the stomach of leatherjackets bigger that have been bigger than a fifty cent piece.I guess its a cousin of the tongue parasite

    1. Hi Matt thanks for the comment, I’m guessing those monster parasites you’re finding in leatherjackets stomachs are simply too smart to hang around in the mouth or a species with such a formidable pair of chompers! Cheers, Dan

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