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January 17, 2024 56 mins

I'm joined by naturalist, educator and author Heather Montgomery as we talk about her book "Sick" and the fascinating world of animal immune systems (and poop).

Guest: Heather Montgomery

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Speaker 1 (00:06):
Welcome to Creature feature production of iHeartRadio. I'm your host
of Many Parasites, Katie Golden. I studied psychology and evolutionary biology,
and today on the show we are getting Guy and
YU can see we are talking about animal immune systems
now as we hopefully exit the cold and flu season.

I'm sure a lot of you have had some recent
experience with your immune system, and despite how unpleasant it is,
it is also really fascinating. So today is a special
episode because I have a guest who is a naturalist,
a teacher, and an author whose recent book, Sick is

about amazing stories of the animal immune system. It would
be a book that if I had got my hands
on this book when I was a kid, it would
be like my personal Bible. Is it is really fun
even for adults. Welcome Heather Montgomery.

Speaker 2 (01:08):
Hey, I'm so excited to be here and talk to
folks who are just as excited as I am to
learn from the animal world. It's so amazing what's out there.
If we open our eyes and start asking questions. Wow,
I just get carried away with it.

Speaker 1 (01:22):
I feel like we're very much kindred spirits. Because I
love the grossness of biology Obviously, I do love a
beautiful butterfly. I love a beautiful bird, but I think
I also enjoy appreciating just the you know, the poop
of nature. It's so interesting and it's I mean, it's

not only a great way to I think teach kids
about it, because like, you know, you got to lean
in a little bit to like the gross stuff to
get kids interested. But honestly, I also believe that is
true of adults. Like we may not like to admit it,
but I certainly have never outgrown learning stuff about poop
and fighting. It both kind of funny and really interesting.

Speaker 2 (02:06):
Right, isn't that funny that happens? Like when we grow up,
we're supposed to not be interested in the things that
we're innately interested in. I'm not sure why why, but
it's like we're always attracted and repelled at the same
time by these things, and those are the things that
fascinate me. I'm kind of curious as to why people
are so interested in the yanky stuff, but we are. Yeah,

it's really cool.

Speaker 1 (02:30):
It is really interesting because it makes some sense that
we are repelled by poop, because I mean, in some
ways it's very practical, right, Poop can spread parasites, can
spread disease. But it's so it's good that we're not,
you know, that we grow out of the phase of
playing in our own poop. However, it is still really interesting.

I think that we are drawn to kind of like
you know, when you're on a hike and you see
some animal dung and you see there's stuff poking out
of it. I think people would be lying if, like
they wouldn't admit that that's a little interesting, and you're
kind of like, Okay, I do kind of want to
poke that with a stick and find out what's going

on in there. It's both gross for good reason, but
it's also really interesting exactly.

Speaker 2 (03:20):
That's actually what led me to write a whole book
about poop, a different book, you know, it was a
different book, yes, but it was like the surprising side,
right that we when we look at this stuff that's
so gross, what we can actually learn about the world,
whether it's animals, you know, or the rest of the world.
All of the kind of big questions that come out

of scat.

Speaker 1 (03:43):
Yeah, no, absolutely, I mean it's it's a whole thing
like in in research. It's so such an important actual
kind of like research method is collecting and studying animal poop,
which sounds you know, it sounds like not a fun job,
but then when you think about it, like that is
kind of cool because you get to be out in nature,

you collect a bunch of dung, and then you bring
it back for analysis. But there is so there is
one poop story I want uh to talk about a
little bit. It's in your book. Uh. It's I think
one of the most endearingly gross stories about poop.

Speaker 2 (04:21):

Speaker 1 (04:21):
It is about puppy poop and the mother's response to
puppy poop. And it's it's really cute but also horrifyingly disgusting,
and I don't it's one of those things where it's
like perfectly combining cuteness with grossness exactly right.

Speaker 2 (04:40):
So, if you're a mom and you've got a whole
litter of puppies and a you know together, what are
they going to do a lot of is boop? Right,
and that's awesome. You've got to get rid of this stuff.
Plus what if there's parasites in it, which they're likely
are you know, if you're if you're not a pet
and taken care of, and so how do you deal

with that because the puppy's immune system can't deal with
it at all. So mom sacrifices and she laps it up.
She carries it away from her babies through her own
digestive system, which is atrocious but not really because her
immune systems better handle these kinds of parasites. Plus, she

basically hauls away and she can't pick it up with
her hands, right, so she basically hauls away through her
system and deposits it elsewhere. And if she deposits it elsewhere,
soon enough, the eggs haven't hatched for say, the round one,
and so she gets rid of them. It's just like
that in and of itself, that kind of behavioral adaptation
is phenomenal to me, Like how that came about. It's

just amazing gross but awesome too.

Speaker 1 (05:49):
You know, it's so gross, but it's so sweet because
like obviously you know, it's this dog wanting to I mean,
it's hard to talk about animals in terms of what
they want, like because they have these instincts, right, and
this mother dog doesn't know why she's drawn to eating
her offsprings poop, but it is it is a it's

still sweet because it's like this this instinct to protect
your offspring to help them grow and develop. I mean,
it makes sense, that's how evolution works. But it's also
like it's one of the things that like, oh yeah,
like humans are not the only ones that deal with
baby poop, like other animals deal with baby poop. A

cute thing. I think another kind of cute gross poop
thing is that birds, a lot of bird species, they
don't want to just have their baby birds poop and
have the poop accumulate and the nests. So the baby
bird poop is actually kind of comes in it. When
it comes out, it's sort of encased in this like
mucoasal sack, and then it lifts its little butt up

and presents this poop too. It's and the mom bird
just like picks it up with her beak because you know,
she doesn't have hands, and carries it outside the nest
and deposits it outside the nest. So it's it's kind
of gross but also really cute. And I have seen
a video of someone who's taking care of a baby
bird that was sadly abandoned, and this person has to

take a pair of chompsticks and pick up the little
poop package every time this bird feeds and then like
presents its butt, presents this poop. It's really cute and
also obviously a little gross.

Speaker 2 (07:33):
Isn't it phenomenal that that works that way. I actually
challenge kids and adults sometimes because we're all just big kids,
to watch a nest with binoculars and you can actually
tell when the young have hatched and started to digest
food or consume food because you'll start to see the

mother and add too, carrying away the fecals. It's just crazy.

Speaker 1 (07:59):
It's so it's it's like, oh, yeah, other animals, I
guess have to deal with quote unquote poopy diapers, except
it's like a natural diaper.

Speaker 2 (08:07):
Yeah, and it would be great if you know, we
had natural diapers for our young as well, but yeah,
but we don't.

Speaker 1 (08:15):
No, we don't, we don't. So another major theme in
your book is the immune system, which I mean, again,
I as an adult, got to kick out of reading
this book, but it is it is a great book
for kids as well. And I think this is a
great introduction to the immune system to kids because it's
it seems overwhelming, right, Like the immune system, it's so complicated,

there's so many things but I think it's also like
when you think about the parts of the immune system,
it gets a little bit easier to understand what's going
on because there's actually two major parts of the immune system,
and one is the innate or non specific immune system
and the adaptive immune system. And the innate immune system

we see every day when you look in the mirror,
you look at other people. It's our skin, it's our mucus,
it's our earwax, our hair, all of these things that
are a barrier to pathogens. There's also on the cellular
level innate immune cells, such as phagocytes that will actually

basically eat pathogens, eat things that are not supposed to
be there, break them down so that they are harmless.
Sometimes they break it down and then that's when the
adaptive immune system can come into place. So the adaptive
immune system is the part of the immune system that
actually launches a response specifically towards a type of pathogen

that it recognizes. So when you learn about a virus,
like you get infected with a virus, your body learns
about it, then it launches an adaptive immune response, and
this one is a little more precise and it can
be stronger it can in a stronger reaction, but it is.

It's really interesting because this adaptive immune system is in
this kind of like ballet with viruses and bacteria, this
evolutionary kind of arms race, and so both humans and
animals have adaptive and innate immune systems, and the balances
can be different. Some animals actually have a very weak

adaptive immune system or a very weak innate immune system,
and it kind of they balance each other out. Like
the deep sea anglerfish has actually kind of done away
with a lot of its adaptive immune system because the
male deep sea anglerfish attaches itself to the female and

actually kind of like fuses grafts itself onto the female.
And if this adaptive immune system knew that this male
was there, it would try to kill it, and that
would put a kibosh on the wh whole like mating
strategy of these these fish. And so instead it's thought
that it overcomes this weaker adaptive immune system with a

stronger passive immune system, like a you know, thicker skin,
more mucosal membranes and so, and also just the fact
that they're not really running into each other a lot
down there, so sparsely populated, but in general, animals have
both an innate and an adaptive immune system, and the
innate immune system can be really really interesting. Uh, And

I really love your examples in this book, especially when
when we're talking about slime. So what is so many
animals are slimy and it seems gross, but it's actually
really interesting and really important. So what is I mean,
what is slime? What is mucus? And what is what
is it used for? And why is it so popular

in nature?

Speaker 2 (11:54):
Oh? Slime is awesome. Don't we love it? I mean,
it is just great. We all have it. It's there,
it's a part of of well, I don't know an
animal that it's not a part of. But the amazing
thing is that slime protects us, you know, it's in
our nose and it's one of those other than skin,
which is kind of the first barrier, right, But that

slime is there to catch intruders as they come into
the body and attack it. One of the stories I
love is about the hagfish, which people.

Speaker 1 (12:24):
Probably I love the hagfish.

Speaker 2 (12:26):
They're so gross and so slimy, right, and their slime
does a number of different things, but it also includes
licensomes and that when they the licenz homes are just
these amazing attackers, right, So any bacteria or things like that,
they just go at it, hack it, wack it, and
smack it. And I just think that's pretty awesome to

look at kind of across the dul Kingdom, how similar
adaptations are used, and also how every species has its
own unique way of attacking these invaders. One of the
stories I love to talk about is the ants, because
ants don't give a lot get a lot of credit, right,

I mean, there's little things, but amazingly scientists are studying
ants in order to better understand our immune system. One
of the things that happens, at least to my mind,
when I'm understanding immune systems is it's so complex. It's
hard to hard to visualize, right, But when you think
about an ant colony as an individual a super organism,

you can kind of get a better sense of how
a human body might work. For example, we've all seen yeah, yeah, right,
Like we've all seen an ant hill. We see ants
go in, right, and if you think about that ant hill,
if you touch it, you know how they react. So
thinking that that ant hill is kind of like our skin,

the outside surface, Like if we attack it. They're gonna
attack us, just like if something breaks our skin barrier,
our immune system's gonna attack it. But then there are
the normal places where things go into the ant hill,
like the openings, you know, the entrance ways. But right
there at the entrance ways to that ant hill are guards,

and those guards are gonna attack anything that tries to
come in that is not the self, right, just like
our nose that slim in our nose, it's gonna do
the same thing, right, And as you go deeper into
the ant hill, you have more and more protection. What
was amazing to me is as I researched for this book,
I discovered I never thought about the fact that ants
are exposed to fungus all the time because they live

in the soil, and fungus lives in the soil, and
fungus would just love to like dive into an ant
hill and create an epidemic because one little ant carrying
fungus spores into the ant hill. Oh, they could go crazy.
But you know, you've got those guards on the doorway
that are gonna maybe catch those spores. But as the

ant worker ant goes deeper into the ant hill, there's
there are other cleaner ants, sanitation ants, right, and so
what's fascinating to be is that these ants, these sanitation ants,
remove these fungal spores, but yet don't get sick themselves.
And I was like, how, And so I looked into

the research and it's just amazing. This guy, Christopher pull
is doing some awesome research with them. One of the
things that happens in certain ants is they they actually
put the spores in their mouths. Wait, leaning the ants,
they're putting the spores in their mouth It sounds really
really like the wrong thing.

Speaker 1 (15:35):
To get dangerous.

Speaker 2 (15:36):
Yeah, right, but they have these pockets in their mouth,
little pockets in their mouths that they stuck the spores into,
and then they carry the spores off into the garbage
basically and get.

Speaker 1 (15:47):
Rid of them and spit it out. Yeah, that's amazing.

Speaker 2 (15:50):
And this story goes deeper and deeper because in this story,
actually if the young, the pupa, the larvae are infected
by spores, the sanitation ants actually destroy them, which sounds.

Speaker 1 (16:05):
Terrible, right, it's zombie apocalypse rules, you know.

Speaker 2 (16:08):
The zombie absolution, And but it's such an analogy to
our own bodies, where if we have cells that are infected,
guess what they have to die?

Speaker 1 (16:19):
Apoptosis is. It's it's really interesting because the cell death
sounds really bad. Oh, cell death, it's the thing that
keeps us alive. We need our cells to die. They
can replenish obviously. If you have too much cellular death,
that's a bad thing. But if you have no cellular death,

that's actually what cancer basically is. It's when your cell
doesn't know how to die. It's your cell loses the ability.
There's a mutation that prevents it from uh from dying
from this process called apoptosis, and that is really really bad.
It's also what protects us from pathogens, because an infected

cell can be like, oh, this isn't good actually, like
destroy itself, and even through destroying itself, can can cause
the virus to break apart, and then that can be
picked up by other cells, which go, oh, this is
an interesting thing to learn from and bring those little
those little antigens, the parts of the virus that are

that can be learned from. And so yeah, it's really
interesting how like the the immune system does attack our
own bodies sometimes and that's both important in life saving
and can also cause a lot of problems, right like,
if if our immune system attacks our own cells too strongly,

that can actually kill us. And if they don't attack
cells strongly enough, it's too weak of an immune response,
and so then the virus can actually directly harm our
cells and go and be and replicate unabated. But yeah,
that bounds. I love the connection to the ants because

you see these kind of very complex colony behaviors. Is
very much like how the immune system works because with ants,
you have a hierarchy. It's use sociality, right, Like, so
you have very specific roles that each of the ants has,
and you have like obviously the queen ants, which are
the ones that are the only ones that can reproduce generally,

but you also have different roles for the ants and something.
It can also be a different role based on the
time and the ants life or the same thing with bees,
right like a bees life cycle, their role might change
as it gets older. And so you see a very
similar thing in the immune system where you have these
immune cells and they have these It's kind of like

a use social system within our own bodies. Because you
have this hierarchical system, you have these very specific roles
that each of the cells play and these rules they
have to play by, and it's really interesting because we
have to have to be a unified organism. There has
to be that sacrifice in order to help the larger system, right,

the entire ant colony or the entire human to function.
And without that kind of sacrifice of these cells, we
couldn't function as an entire organism, which I think is
so interesting.

Speaker 2 (19:33):
Yeah. Right. And the fact, one of the other things
that I found interesting about the story of about the
ants is that the worker ants basically are inoculating themselves
against the disease. Those interesting. Yeah, So if they're exposed
to a small amount of scores, which they do as

you know, workers bring in spores from the environment than
those workers and then those immune sorry, those sanitary ants,
sanitization ants are immune.

Speaker 1 (20:06):
They develop immunity. That's incredible.

Speaker 2 (20:08):
Yeah. Again, it's just a great analogy because we can
visualize that ant moving here and there and everywhere, and
in fact, in our body and all animals, you know,
the cells are kind of like those little animal can
I go back to something you mentioned absolutely, and that

is you mentioned how our immune systems sometimes kind of
can react and.

Speaker 3 (20:34):
Overreact and how that affects our body, you know, speaking
specifically about viruses, because that's something that we're all very
interested in these days.

Speaker 2 (20:45):
Yeah, you know, the symptoms really are just our body
reacting and overreacting. And that reminds me of the story
of the bats, which just blows my mind.

Speaker 1 (20:57):
Mm hmm. I love bats, and I let there well,
I don't want to interrupt you, but I just they're
so interesting to me, and especially when it comes to immunity,
because they have such big requirements in terms of energy
for flying. A mammal that can fly, it's it's an
incredible feat. It's this warm blooded, thermal regulating animal that

can also fly, and it has a relatively short evolutionary
history of flight when you compare it to say, like insects,
and so it's really really interesting. And the pressures, the
the metabolic and energy pressures on these bats are incredible,
and so they have really interesting immune systems. And anyways,

now I'm gonna let you you tell your story.

Speaker 4 (21:45):
No, that's great, I love it because one of the
things about bats is there's still so many questions about them, right,
like this idea that they can fly, but yet to
do that requires this huge metabolic rate.

Speaker 2 (21:58):
How do they survive that? Because if we tried to
do that, our body would crash in so many ways.
Number one, because we'd be producing so much waste that
our immune system would be going after that waste and
and it would just be it would be it would
be a storm of our immune system. Right. So scientists
are really curious about how bads actually survive. I mean

most people have heard that, you know, bats can carry
many many viruses and that we can't in fact acquire
viruses from bats and vice versa. But you know, how
is that? How can they survive? I mean, there's so
many bad species, there's bats across the entire world except
for Antarctica, and how can they be surviving so many viruses?

And come find out one of the one of the
things is their innate immune system is strong, so strong
that that may be driving the evolution of viruses, right
because their bodies. In order for a virus to successfully
infect that, it's got to be pretty amazing. The interesting

story that I discovered as I was doing research for
this book is that the innate. While the innate immune system,
the first immune system basically is so strong, the secondary
or the adaptive required depending on who you're talking to.
That immune system basically says, guess what, virus, if you

made it past that first line? Okay, so what if
the immune system decides to not react? And I'm saying
this anthropomorphically obviously, but if the immune system isn't reacting
in this storm, the symptoms aren't there, right, And in

order to figure that out. The work that went into
that was amazing because you had to actually look at
what was happening on a cellular level to create that storm.
This inflammation they call it the inflammazone and basically what's
happening is, in comparison to other mammals, bats turned down

like a dial, they turn down or they dial down
that inflammation rate. And when you do that, you don't
have the information. When you don't have the information, therefore
you don't have the symptoms. Basically, they're kind of saying them, Oh, wait,
you're not really hurting me, virus, Why don't I just
let you be? Like, we don't have to fight, which
I think is a really cool message just to think about. Right,

if you're not really killing me, yeah, you know, we
can deal, we can survive. Yeah, we can coexist, which
is powerful.

Speaker 1 (24:40):
Yeah, it's really interesting. I mean, you do talk about
this a bit in sec which again I love because
this is so cool to like introduce these concepts of
like the fact that we do have some viral DNA
still with us, right, Like viruses don't always viruses in
bacteria especially like are not always dangerous. They can actually

start to incorporate themselves that there's like a there can
be like a mutualistic symbiosis between animals and bacteria and
even viruses, And it's so cool. And I mean the
other thing with bats is, like I think it's it's
a really important thing for people to understand that the

reason that bats can have these these viruses that can
be dangerous for humans is not because they're dirty. They're
actually very hygienic, uh, they but the fact that they
have these this very different kind of immune system, this
immune system that has adapted differently from ours. So like
if they when they encounter a virus, right and they

don't have they have successfully whittled down the viral load
because of their incredible innate immune system, and then they
don't have as strong of an inflammatory response, so then
they survive. When we're introduced to that same virus, our
innate response, our adaptive response is going to be much stronger,

and so we can actually even though without our adaptive
immune system we wouldn't get very far because we wouldn't
be able to destroy viruses and pathogens that could replicate
inside of us. It also means that we can have
this massive inflammatory response, a cytokine storm, which is essentially

like a game of dominoes gone wrong inside of your
immune system, and it can be really damaging. So it's
like the same immune response that can save your life, right,
like a fever which is killing off a bacteria or
virus which can save your life, can also kill you.

But back to the concept of these viruses not always
being bad for us, Like the the fact that we
have like in our DNA now like from you know,
millions of years ago, like viral DNA that has inserted
itself into our DNA and then it just works out

is incredible to me.

Speaker 2 (27:13):
Yeah, we think of that, you know, we have this
bias that viruses are bad. Well, guess what, so much
of our DNA is viral, which I had no idea
how that happened, right, I didn't understand the entire concept
of retroviruses, which, okay, can we we can dive deeply
into this I didn't get, so let's do it. There's

an entire chapter that didn't make it into this book
because it was so complex, but it just am so
fascinated by it. Right, So, retroviruses, all viruses, we most
of us know that the virus has to enter the
cell of the host to be replicated, right, but retroviruses
go deeper than that. So once they enter the cell

and their DNA is their their genetic material I should say,
is replicated, then that genetic material actually enters the cell's nucleus, which.

Speaker 5 (28:11):
Is like whoa, whoa, Like that's the safe house, you know,
like the cell is one thing. But entering the nucleus,
where like the genetic material of the host exists, you're
like entering the vault.

Speaker 2 (28:23):
And then that that retroviral genetic material inserts itself into
the host's genetic material, which is like so mind blowing
that that can actually happen. But if you think about
it again, it's this concept that like, do we have
to be a war? We're two there are two organisms here,

and you can either be a war and one can
win and the other can lose or you could coexist
in an amazing way. That's happened and every placental mammal,
every placental mammal, so we think of that as you
know us and other large organizers, but we all have

retroviral DNA in us that allows us to give live birth.

Speaker 1 (29:16):
It's amazing, amazing.

Speaker 2 (29:17):
Okay, I have to tell this story about these kittens
that came into my life as I was doing this research.
There was a cat that got hit by a car
and long story short, she was pregnant and she was
not gonna make it, but she was doing well enough
that she crawled up in my lap and gave birth

to kittens. Wow, they were amazing. Well, I had never
observed that, and I had been doing this research about placenta,
so I got very interested in the placenta and how
this happened. Turns out, you know, and a zygod an
embryo is is going to be considered non self right right, Yes,

an outside invader inside the mother. The question comes, how
in the world does a mother's body accept this invader
in because they shouldn't. Like the immune system from the
mother should attack this invader and kick it out. Well,

who's really good at checking the immune system viruses. In
order for a virus to enter our cell, it has
to trick us. It has to have that message on
its surface, that protein that says, wait, wait, I'm part
of you. It's okay, don't worry about me. I'm just
I belong here.

Speaker 1 (30:39):
Fake the fake ID that sells carry around because we
have these, we have essentially tiny cops inside of our
bodies called natural kill our cells that will go around
checking everyone's passport, checking everyone's papers. It's a little bit
you know, it's a little authoritarian inside our bodies sometimes.
And so a lot of viruses have created this like

basically a fake ID to show the natural killerself like
I'm legit. But yeah, that that can be applied to
protecting our own offspring is amazing.

Speaker 2 (31:13):
Right. So if that, if that future offspring didn't have
that retroviral genetic material that therefore programmed the proteins on
its surface to tell the mother, hey it's okay, let
me in the placenta, would never happen, right, The attachment
would never happen. And so every single one of us

we should be thinking that the viruses, right, because we
were born it's just amazing and a phenomenal thing. Kind
of on a little another aside, but it's amazing. Is
there's there are some lizards that do this as well.
Wait lizards. Lizards are not supposed to have licentis, but
yet they did some of them down right. It's because
this retroviral invasion has happened so many times across time. Girls.

Speaker 1 (32:03):
Yeah, it's it's amazing. Yeah, it's so it's I mean,
it's the same. I think that people are more familiar
with this concept when it comes to bacteria, right, Like,
we've got good bacteria and bad bacteria. Uh, and a
lot of it is not even just good or bad bacteria,
but the balance of bacteria, right Like, it's a specific
balance of which bacteria you have and your own immune system.

Right for some people, bacteria that's generally good and fine
can be bad for someone else because their immune system
reacts too strongly to it. So there are all these
different factors that come into play. But that's the same
thing with like viruses, right like most I mean, it's
true that most times you catch some kind of virus,
right like a cold or a flu, it's not good

for you. It's not good necessarily good to get sick,
you know. Sometimes it's it's just a fact of life
that you're going to get sick. Uh. And some times
the timing of when you get sick can be really important,
right Like, if you get certain viruses, you absolutely do
not want to get as an infant because your immune
system's too weak. But some if you do get as

an infant, they're less serious when you're an adult. Now
we have vaccines which make it a lot safer to
introduce viral information to infants and to adults without us
having to go through the risks of infection. But it's
really interesting to see the way that you know, the

that like viruses, like being introduced to a virus isn't
always bad. Sometimes it depends on the timing of the virus.
And then sometimes there can be a virus that actually
aids in our evolution. But then again, I'm not suggesting
that you go out and like French kiss someone who
has COVID or the flu, because most times, most times

that we encounter viruses, it's not necessarily going to be
a good thing. It might not hurt us that badly,
but it's certainly not gonna, you know, be the next
stage in human evolution. But if that happens enough, like
I think just that the scale of evolution of millions
of years of this happening, you know, once in a
while there will actually be a useful mutation caused by

this viral DNA, which again, it's it's really interesting when
like that RNA and DNA essentially can like float around
and then just be absorbed into the cell and then whoop,
now it's part of our DNA. It's so weird. That
doesn't seem like that should be how it works, right,
that there can be free floating uh, you know, RNA

or DNA that we can actually incorporate into our own
genome and then pass on through our reproductive cells. That
seems like that should not work, but it does, and
that's probably I mean, that's like we're getting into sort
of the origin of life, right like where you have
these free floating strands of proteins that one you know,

glob absorbs another glob and now it's become a more
complex glob that has proteins that can start to actually
construct new proteins, which is, you know, so hard for
me to wrap my head around how that started.

Speaker 2 (35:18):
And so hard for all of us, and I think
science in general were hesitant to accept ideas, which is awesome, right.
That's what makes science unique in that we consider new
hypotheses and theories, but we have to have lots of evidence.
And one of the really cool stories about that, of course,

is our own mitochondria. This story started a very long
time ago where people started wondering, weight, what's up with
this mitochondria? The powerhouse, right, the cells like ourselves can
function without them because they're what converts the sugar into energy.
But they're weirdos. They don't seem to belong in a cell.
And for the long time, some scientists were very curious

about this and saying, wait, there's something different, and other
folks were like, no, no, no, no, you're what are
you talking about? That's weird, you know. And for a
long time, the uh, the science behind my country where
they came from, was ignored. But now we understand that
they are very different the mitochondria as an organelle. And

you know, the theory is that they came from microbes.
So if we had never incorporated this microbe, this other
you know, into a cell, the complex cells with the
U carry outs would never have evolved, which just so
mind blowing. I mean, the whole idea of good versus

bad is a thing, you know, right, like the story
of the Turkey vultures. We talk about vultures because they
are awesome.

Speaker 1 (36:54):
I mean I love them so yes, absolutely.

Speaker 2 (36:56):
They're amazing. I mean, like they stick their head in
the grossest nast stuff, which we know is full of bacteria.
And if we think about sticking our head into a
dead body and eating it, of course we think everything
in there, all that bacteria that's rotting it, it's got to
be awful. But yet they don't get sick, right, they don't.
They survived this stuff and they don't have any food

poisoning and wow. And so a scientist decided to investigate that,
like he's like, we've got to understand what's going into
their body, and so he took a bunch of dead vultures. Sadly,
there were a number of vultures that he swabbed their
faces and their necks, and he found like over seven

hundred different bacterial species on them, Like, wait, seven hundred
can you imagine? And some of those were like really
really intense, And he's like, okay, so what's going in
their mouths, you know, is whatever's on their face and
lo and behold when he looks in their guts, there's
about seventy over just over set species. Like that's huge,

and so how did that happen? You know? And what's
going on that we don't know? Right? That is such
new science, We don't know. But what's intriguing to think
about is the ones that are in the guts are
the ones that we would freak out if they were
in our guts. Like there's flesh eating bacteria in there,
there's ecola, there's this stuff. We're like, whoa get away

from us? Right, But yet they're surviving and thriving in there,
and we would assume that that's terrible. Maybe not, you know,
maybe they're actually supporting each other.

Speaker 1 (38:35):
Yeah, now, I mean that is what is so interesting, right, Like,
you can have these very complex symbiotic relationships, and symbiosis
is not always good and it's not always bad, right, Like,
Symbiosis just describes a close uh, basically a ballet between
two species. It could be a parasite and a ghost,

or it could be a mutualistic relationship. And sometimes these
relationships can like change over time, right, something that was
once like maybe at some point in the vulture's evolutionary
history these bacteria did harm them, and then over time
they evolved to coexist in a way where the bacteria

were able to survive, but so was the vulture. And
I mean it's so interesting because I mean, I do
I love vultures, and I love how like all of
the things that we see about them that seems to
make them gross, right, Like they have these bald heads
and it's like, oh, that's that's gross looking. That's for hygiene.
That's so blood and stuff doesn't get stuck to their feathers.

And then they poop on themselves. They poop on their
legs and for us that'd be like the most gross
thing you could do, But that's also for hygiene. They
have this very like they like bird poop in general
is a combination of urine and feces typically, and so
like the turepoop has this very it's very acidic, and
so it actually cleans their legs. And so it's like

these things that we would consider disgusting about them, right
Like they're eating they're eating a corpse. It's usually a
rotting cadaver, or it's it's really disgusting. Well, they're actually
taking a lot of like bacteria and nasty things out
of the environment and then converting it into food, containing

it and expelling it in a way that is less
harmful to other animals, to other to the environment. So
it's like, you know, these are actually amazing, Like we
can think of them as like the sanitation experts of
the animal kingdom. So everything that seems gross about them
to us is actually this process of taking these bad

things and then turning it into a process that like
works for them and then is helpful for preventing the
spread of disease and other animals.

Speaker 2 (40:59):
We should be thinking them every.

Speaker 1 (41:00):
Day, I personally do.

Speaker 2 (41:03):
I realized I misspoke. When Gary the scientist Gary Graves
studied the vultures, he found over five hundred species on
their heads. I get so many. You know, what we
keep kind of coming back to is this idea of
evolution and you know, microbes and germs and all of

those things that we see is so bad. They're bad
for individuals, yes, but for populations it's.

Speaker 1 (41:34):
Different, you know, Yeah, And.

Speaker 2 (41:37):
So it's interesting to you know, our perspective as individuals
is that these things are bad because they can kill individuals.
But if we look in the evolutionary scope, that's different,
right in terms of the diversity that we have on
the planet. They've driven this evolution, and that's just a
mind boggling idea.

Speaker 1 (42:00):
Right, Yeah, And without that diversity, I mean, what's this
is what's interesting, right, is because we have all sorts
of different selective pressures, from the very small like bacteria
and viruses, to the very large, like a meteor hitting
the Earth and changing the climate. And we can't like,
like the the fact that like bacteria and viruses have

driven this diversification of species, right, Like you know, you
would think like, well, so what right, it causes a
lot of suffering. So it's not they're not really good
to have. But because you have such a diversity of species,
then life can survive things like the climate suddenly changing,
a meteor striking their earth and causing because now you
have more of a like a genetic library for these

different animals. And so you're going to have the mass
extinction of a lot of animals, but you're going to
have just enough that have the ability to survive this.
And so much of that is driven by microbes, by
things that are things that are harmful and bad but
have driven this diversification of species that they actually are
able to survive, you know, devastating events. Maybe not on

the individual level, which is sad for the individual of course,
but in terms of like just life on Earth, like,
viruses and bacteria are not necessarily bad for life on
Earth like for individual lives. Yes, and so again, keep
washing your hands, keep getting vaccinated. I'm not saying on

an individual level it's good for us to get walloped
by the flu or whatever. But yeah, in terms of
just general life on Earth, these relationships that we have
with with pathogens is actually really complex and it's not
all bad exactly.

Speaker 2 (43:52):
And there's the whole, the whole idea that we've lumped
all microbes into this bad category. You know, it's very
easy for us too, because we can't see them, and
when we can't see them, we don't understand them. And
that's why I'm so passionate about learning and teaching about
this because the more we know, Wow, it opens our

eyes to so many things that we didn't understand. This
complexity that's there, These microbes that are in our bodies
that we wouldn't survive without you know that's it's mind blowing.

Speaker 1 (44:26):
It's something you can't even if you can't directly see it,
it's something you can feel. If you've ever had a
bad stomach flu, which I have had recently, and essentially
what happens with the stomach flu is your body is
like hits the eject button because something is in there
that's that's bad. Sometimes it's a virus, sometimes it's food poisoning,

and so your body is like emergency, We've got to evacuate.
We've got to get rid of this. So you're gonna
vomit and you're gonna have diarrhea. Uh. And so that's
why it's I mean, the number one thing when you
have a stomach flu or food poisoning is hydration because
like you're losing a lot of fluid, uh. Food, you

don't have to worry about as much. You will you
will be hungry when you're hungry. It's going to take
a little while. But yeah, so you should hydrate. But
your your body is doing something important. It is it
is getting rid of something that it thinks is really
dangerous and could cut and could really severely hurt you.
Is it always right? Maybe not, but it's it's doing

the best job it can in terms of gauging. Okay,
when do we need to just eject everything? But what
happens is you actually lose like through that injection, Like
after that, you might find that sometimes you get more
kind of you feel kind of yucky a while after,
Like after you're done with the stomach flu, after you're

done with the food poisoning, you still kind of maybe
get maybe some like indigestion or some stomach issues. And
it's like, well, because you flushed out a lot of
good bacteria as well, and which is why you know,
the immune response has to be so delicate and not
always go off all the time whenever you are infected

with them, you know, a tiny pathogen like because that
that flushing out, you are flushing out also like good bacteria.
So it's you know, it's good to like uh sort
of uh try to you know, once you start to
rehydrate and eat food and stuff, and naturally your your
gut flora will repopulate. So it's not something you have

to panic about or anything like that. But it is
really interesting and it's also it's so interesting these there
are things in medicine where we recognize right, the power
of this gut bacteria. So we have things like fecal transplants,
which sounds horrifying, sounds sounds not like something that you

would want to have happened, but it is apparently something
that can be really important in terms of helping repopulate
someone's gut with good bacteria, with something that can actually
help them help a person like when you digest, but
it can also protect you from other bacteria because bacteria,
like any organism, are in competition with each other. So

if you have a less harmful bacteria that is populating
your gut, it will try to compete with and interfere
with bacteria that might make you sick. So yeah, like
bacteria is often our friend, it's just sometimes when it isn't,
it's really noticeable.

Speaker 2 (47:36):
Yeah, and it's nasty discussing. Yeah, fecal transplants are just amazing.
I just I can hardly believe that that works, but
it does. And once I met some folks who have
had fecal transplants and successfully, you know, cure m it's
just amazing what they what they can do. So when

one of the things that amazes me is that even
bacteria that we see as the bad guys like staphylococcus, right,
which can be really a huge problem. But staff itself
is infected. Some staff can exist on us in a
very healthy way, and other staff that have has genetic

material that's we're not really sure how it gets in there,
but it has. It has additional genetic material from another
organism that in fact is like it in self is infected.
So we don't think about the fact that that all
of these microups are in their own world dealing with
infections of themselves just mind blowing.

Speaker 1 (48:43):
When you zoom out more like it's easier to comprehend
that where when you have a mosquito, Mosquitoes do not
make us sick, right, Mosquitoes are would actually be relatively harmless.
They are parasites, but they would if if not for

pathogens that actually infect the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes themselves would
be pretty harmless to like a human, but because they
themselves can be infected with uh, with pathogens with like
something that can actually be passed on to us, and
in fact that it's the whole reason that they will

infect the the the mosquito. The mosquito can then pass
something along to us and so something that we see right,
like as this mosquito is like hurting us, It's like, well,
it's not really the mosquito itself, it's whatever has hitched
a ride on the mosquito. And then but then when
you of course, like you go and sort of like
all the evolutionary pressures and the sorts of like symbiotic

relationships that affect like like organisms, you know, macro organisms
are those same things are happening on a microscopic level.
Like that is not my I don't talk about it
as much because it is not sort of my area
of expertise, but it is still really really interesting.

Speaker 2 (50:06):
It is mind blowing. I came across a study of ticks,
same concept, where a tick doesn't ask to be infected
by lime disease, right, that's not something they chose, right,
they are infected. There's an amazing study of a lizard
out in the western United States. Who if an infected

tick bites this lizard. We don't understand everything that's going
on here, but the tick when it leaves the lizard
no longer has carries lime disease.

Speaker 1 (50:40):
Oh that's so interesting, so.

Speaker 2 (50:42):
Amazing, right, So something's happening when the blood from the
lizard enters the forega of the tick that's affecting that
disease causing microbe. Just mind blowing to think about it.
You know, we think of ticks they're terrible, awful, but
just like mosquitoes, they and of themselves don't cause that

much damage.

Speaker 1 (51:05):
But yeah, yeah, but they are too convenient of a
little taxi for like they like mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, rats,
you know, all these these little animals that we think
of as you know, gross, like you know, plague bearing animals.
It's just because they're little taxis, right, Like, they get
around a lot. They're easy to hitch your right on,

and you know, I mean it's like a flea hitching
your right on a rat. But then you know the
the bubonic plague hitching your right on the flea. It's
it's these these other intermediary organisms have no idea that
they are little cab drivers for disease. And it's not
really their fault. Uh So it's I mean, it's not

even the disease's fault when you get down to it,
but you know, it's just it it is really interesting.
Before we go, I guess I just wanted to circle
back to kind of the initial question that we talked about, like,
why do you think so called gross stuff is so
fascinating to people? Right? Because I certainly find it fascinating.

I have never grown out of finding poop and puke
and mucus to be really interesting. Now I don't want
to necessarily see it much in real life, right, Like,
if I step on dog poop, I'm not like, well,
this is great. But in terms of being interested in
stories about it, being interested in the science of it,

what do you think is so compelling about it that
that kids and adults, even adults who don't want to
admit it, find so interesting.

Speaker 2 (52:41):
I think it's the questions, because I think questions are
and or curiosity all to linked together. That's what drives learning,
and the human mind wants to learn, right, We're innately
driven to learn and learn and learn. And when we
find something such as poop or blood or something like
that that society says, oh, no, gross, don't look at that,

don't pay attention to it, We're like, wait, what you know?
I want to know more? And the first question is
why why am I not supposed to look at that? Right?
It's a kind of a taboo subject. But why, well,
then that just drives us to learn more and more
the human mind. It's an amazing thing when we ask those questions,
when we look a little closer, that's when we discover

all of this that we've been talking about today was
all driven by questions. Somebody's question about something weird that happened,
that they observed, and they dug a little deeper, and
in the end, our minds get blown again and again
as we look at the animal kingdom right as we
discover these little bits and and what I'm so fascinated
with is the fact that every single one of us

can do that every day. All we have to do
is look and start asking questions.

Speaker 1 (53:52):
Absolutely, Well, thank you so much for coming on. Where
can people find your book? What's it called? And because
I think that it's a really fun book. I think
it's especially good for older kids. But look, I read it,
I'm an adult and I still enjoyed it. So where

can people get your book?

Speaker 2 (54:15):
Well, first, thanks for that. I'm honored that you read
it and enjoyed it so much. This book is called
Sick the Twist and turns behind Animal Germs, and you
can find it online bookstores. It will not be available
until February twentieth, and it's also available if you want
to look at any of my books at Heather L.

Montgomery dot com.

Speaker 1 (54:38):
Yeah, and can you pre order it or is it?

Speaker 2 (54:41):
Yes, it can be pre ordered any online booksseller.

Speaker 1 (54:45):
Fantastic. I have so much respect for these kinds of
books and science education because I think it's so important
to help drive sort of what kids are interested in.
And if kids are interested in gross stuff, and it's like, well,
maybe we should maybe we should pay attention to that
and respect that rather than you know, seeing that as

not an appropriate thing. So thank you so much again
for coming on today, and thank you to the listeners
for listening to the show. A happy new year everyone.
I'm so excited about a whole new year of podcasting.
And if you are enjoying the show and you leave
a rating or review, I deeply appreciate it. I read

all of your reviews, every single one. Print them all out,
make a book, read it every night to myself. And
thank you to the Space Classics for their super awesome song.
Ex Alumina Creature Feature is a production of iHeartRadio. For
more podcasts like the one you just heard visit day,

iHeart radio, app Apple podcasts, or hey guess what wherever
you listen to your favorite shows. I am not your mother.
I cannot tell you what to do, how you decide
to live your life. I will see you next Wednesday.

Speaker 2 (56:03):
M hmm

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