Omnivorous Vines, Parasitic Wasp Mummies, and Cancer

Oak Leaf Wasp Galls

We expect amazing discoveries to come from unexplored jungles of faraway lands, but what does it mean when we learn something incredible from species well-documented for a century in our own backyard? A curious find in South Florida raises questions and possibilities. Once Rice University's Scott Egan ventured outside to seek a wild example of a peculiar mystery observed in the lab, he realized it had been everywhere the whole time!

The Background:
Ever notice the little brown balls on the bottoms of oak leaves? These are "galls", formed by gall wasps. These wasps (among other insects, on other preferred plants) lay eggs on the trees along with a poison which induces the tree to grow its own self around the eggs. Protected by this chamber, the larvae then feed on the host tree until emerging mature. The little balls on the stems and leaves are a type of cancer, tree cells with chemically mutated purpose. Now you know!

The Discovery:
Enter the Love Vine. Literally, enter. Right into the galls. Apparently evidence suggests the parasitic Vines are seeking and penetrating wasp tree galls and desiccating and consuming the wasps inside, leaving behind wasp mummies. They enjoy the crunchy cream-filled kind.

Love Vine Extracting Wasp From Gall
Love Vine Extracting Wasp From Gall

The Implications:
First, let us celebrate there is always something more to discover, even of an environment where we think we've seen it all! Second, how are the vines finding the galls? Especially since the galls are formed of host tree material, how do they know what's inside? What can we learn from them to help us target other types of cancers? Third, what other parasite-on-parasite action have we missed out there which could also contribute to the cancer-seeking question?

Also to note the clearly omnivorous nature of these vines, reminds how much we have to learn about the horrors of our leafy friends! How many more of our green mates are also hunters and consumers of meats? Are we next??

The Summary: 
Parasitic wasps create tree tumors to encase larvae. Creepy Love Vines seek and destroy, eat meat, leave wasp mummies sucked crispy. Brutal world just outside the window may help us innovate cancer cures.

Desire more? Check out a video and pictures of dueling parasites here at Rice University!


Rice University article: 


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