Sea Monkey Superpowers Come With a Price

Who says parasites always have to be our mortal enemies? Robert Daly/Juan Gartner/Frank Greenaway/Getty

If you've ever wondered why superheroes love to wear bright costumes and hang out on rooftops, nature provides a possible answer: tapeworms.

Yes, consider the Artemia brine shrimp, also known as the sea monkey. These hardy, little crustaceans have a reputation for toughness. Their egg cysts can sit on the shelf for years and have even been to the moon and back. In addition to their residences in Sea-Monkey aquariums around the world, they also serve as hatch-on-demand live bait and water toxicity guinea pigs.


Now a new study published in PLOS Pathogens reveals that brine shrimp experience a notable resiliency boost from tapeworm infections. Specifically, parasitic infection increases the crustacean's antioxidant enzymatic defenses and pollutant-sequestering fat reserves — both of which enable the super shrimp to handle higher levels of arsenic pollution.

In fact, the team of Estación Biológica de Doñana researchers inspected a highly polluted Spanish estuary and found that 98 percent of the brine shrimp present carried the parasitic power-up.

Don't be surprised; parasites are stowaways on a biological journey. There's no benefit in sinking the ship, at least not until they've reached the next leg of their travels. These shrimp tapeworms need to enter the gut of a predatory bird to continue their life cycle, so there's a survival advantage in protecting the host against toxic waters. To ensure they make it to bird town, however, the tapeworms also turn the shrimp bright red, which draws the avian hunters right in for an easy meal.

So think about that the next time you contemplate the stunning red costumes of Superman, Daredevil or Flash as they perch atop a picturesque high rise. They're just contemplating the challenges of justice, no doubt, and maybe waiting for a waterbird to swoop down and eat them.