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Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne got all soft inside when he thought about how the botfly larva in his scalp was eating his tissue and turning it into a new organism. It was of him, like a child. His friend Sarah Rogerson was a little less charmed, and they both were surprised by the creature that ultimately emerged from his head.

And Tom Eisner, professor of chemical ecology, loved bugs from earliest childhood, kept them in his room to keep him company when his family found themselves living in South America, bug paradise. He knew them well enough to classify them by how they smelled. These days, as he told Robert at the 92nd St Y, his subjects live for sometimes years, well-cared for in his lab, partners in his work decoding chemical signals to reach across the communication divide, trying to shorten the distance between coexisting organisms.

Read more:

Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True


Sarah Rogerson

Comments [40]

Cynthia Scott from New Orleans

ENOUGH ENOUGH ENOUGH with the botfly already! I've heard this segment at least 3 times in your different mashups, and it's getting old, old, old. To say nothing of revolting. Get some new material.

Sep. 17 2016 03:54 PM
Deborah Brooke from Maine

This story immediately made me think of an episode of the TV show Bones. Scientist and devoted bug guy Jack Hodgins finds he has a worm growing in a bump on the back of his neck and allows it to mature and pop out of the now-large bump. His partner (girlfriend or wife) Angela was initially grossed out but came to feel tenderly toward the little guy. I tried to find the episode but haven't as of yet.

Sep. 17 2016 02:56 PM
LindaRosaRN from Colorado

Get rid of botfly larva with liquid paraffin. They crawl out, trying to breathe.

Jul. 05 2015 10:39 PM
Wanda from Schenectady, NY

I was fascinated by the botfly story (especially since I was working in the Biology Department at approximately the same time, but I was not a scientist--I was a secretary). Anyway...a few years ago, I adopted a rescue dog who had been fostered on a farm. He was a wonderful little guy, and he had been rescued from a huge puppy mill bust in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He was one of 1,000 dogs taken from that mill.

His foster family had him on a farm before I got him. He was a beautiful wirehaired dachshund. He came to my house and I brought him to the vet for all inoculations. He was great. Then, about three weeks later, he had this bump on his side that just wouldn't go away. I thought it was some sort of tumor or something. I brought him back to the vet. My regular vet wasn't there; instead, it was a young, newly-graduated vet who was filling in. She looked at it and said, "Hmmmm....I haven't seen one of these since I was working on farm animals in vet school." She called me over and said, "See that little black dot?" "Yes," I replied. "This is a worm he picked up on the farm," she explained. She called in the vet tech to hold the dog and I stood on the other side of the exam room. She popped the lump, and this worm went flying across the room! The vet wasn't grossed out by this, but I was! She explained the whole process--how eggs were laid on top of mosquitoes, and how when mosquitoes bit the dog, the egg went into the dog, etc., just like on your story.

The dog was none the worse for wear. I, on the other hand, was completely traumatized! Today, when I heard the story, I could visualize that worm, flying across the vet's exam room! The vet did say (as you did in your story) that these are fairly common in farm animals (cows, horses, etc.), and they just pop out and nothing happens.

To quote other commenters: EWWWW! And GO SOX!

May. 18 2015 09:47 PM
East Slope Charlie from NE Cali/NW Nevada

There are basically there kinds of minds: the biologically inquisitive, the physically inquisitive and the thoughtless (as in no questioning in curiosity at all - that needle is 'flat lined', or broken (it takes a physically inquisitive mind to care). I am fortunate to have both the active inquiring minds: so I wonder why the student did not read more than he did and find post-larval living conditions and offer his services to a Prof or Grad Student in the area to observe and study and run a larger chance of keeping it alive to adulthood. My Self, I have MANY N=1 studies in which I am actively involved and contemplate several others every week. Curiosity may have killed a cat, it would only be absolute irony that it would kill me since I hate cats more than I hate the idea of a sub-dermal bot-fly feasting on me and perhaps passing along who-knows-what kind of smaller parasite(s) or concurrent diseases. It would be fascinating!

***anonym from disgusted*** Think about WWI, the US Civil War (and many places in WWII and how many other wars way into the Roman and Greek past) where wounds were treated by placing cages of fly larvae INTO the deep wounds where they eat ONLY the dead flesh, keeping the good, healthy, blood filled new tissue forming - the fly's acted as a line of living Bacteen and bandage keeping the wound healthy and FAR cleaner than any OR or clinic of the time. Far more than mountain peaks of amputated limbs and ridges of otherwise simply scared bodies owe their staying with their body or among the living. Before the 'cillins, Bot Flys were right up there near the top of cutting edge (no pun intended) Medical Science. Hope that helps replace your bot-fly shivers with sweet dreams of lollypops and fluffy cotton candy.

May. 16 2015 01:40 PM
Rosemary from Alaska

I too picked up a bot fly in Belize. Another person on that trip told me about having several cut out of her ankle and that told me what was going on in my scalp. I had a veternarian friend who offered to get it out. He grew up on a farm in Ohio and the boys had fun popping the larva out of the cows and horses. I went to the local surgeon who was a good old boy from Georgia who thought excising my fly was hilarious.
Bot flies secrete an antibiotic that keeps the hole from becoming infected. Interesting .

May. 14 2015 03:07 PM
Jason Bander from Bugback Mountain, USA

I thought this was an urban legend until that legend had to be cut out of my back. I had returned from a destination wedding of a good friend of mine in Belize, and had grown steadily unnerved by a non-healing bite above my left shoulder blade. The next two weeks saw a slow decline into insanity - think Jeff Goldblum in the first half of "The Fly." An initial visit to the doctor resulted in an (inaccurate) "infected bug bite" diagnosis: antibiotics and antihistamines were supposed to do the trick. They didn't. I developed a constant "gnawing" pain that was like getting a bee sting every 5-10 minutes or so. Sleep was out of the question. Work was impossible. Sane, rational thoughts were fleeting. I only found brief comfort after sending a steady stream of scotch-whisky through my blood, knocking my new little friend out cold. About 24 hours later, I was on the phone, telling my doctor that I was going to cut my back open with an exacto blade (not an empty threat). My girlfriend calmed me down and took a close look at the bite through a magnifying glass. After cleaning the wound with hot water, she saw something that I'm sure haunts her to this day: my poor little friend was drowning, so he popped his head out for some air...and said hello to my gf. She almost fainted. Fast-forward to the end: we went to the hospital and they cut it out, much to the joy of the fascinated hospital staff.

Dec. 14 2013 02:39 PM
Geri Nave from San Jose, CA

My 13 year old grandson, Ryan , developed what was thought to be a an infected ingrown hair on his eyebrow this past July. He went through two rounds of antibiotics and a cat scan before it was determined the infection had spread to his sweat glands. An operation was scheduled on 9/19. He came over to our home one weekend and I rubbed some oil on the eyebrow. Two days later texts and phone calls start "flying" amongst family members. That morning Ryan felt what he thought to be pus coming out when lo and behold he saw it wiggling. It finally popped out into the sink and indeed it was moving. Drs. said to bring him in immediately and like an earlier commenter, iPhones were flashing as Ryan was holding up the plastic bag with the little creature inside. One of the Dr's said that Ryan had made his day!
Yes we had been in Costa Rica in July , yes it was a Botfly eventually named Tito the illegal alien trying to find a new home in the USA. Thank goodness for the oil that blocked the oxygen causing the larvae to "worm" it's way out and prevent an operation to remove "infected sweat glands"! Ryan definitely has the grossest family story of all...he should be the record holder of that dubious honor for years to come!

Dec. 14 2013 12:24 AM
Gaby from Portland, OR

Oh, this story hits too close to home during a trip to Belize, I unknowingly raised my own little bot fly larvae thinking it was just a zit or ingrown hair until I realized there was black stuff coming out. So disgusting - I popped mine out like a zit :)

Dec. 11 2013 12:47 PM
Bea from NJ

I don't think that I've ever gotten more goose bumps listening to one of your stories then this one. I was totally grossed out and captivated at the same time. And this is why Radio lab is so fantastic! (I'm glad I'm a sustaining member!)
Cheers! keep up the good work.

Dec. 10 2013 03:58 PM
Kurt from Hays, KS

When I was a boy in Western Kansas, in the 1970's, maybe at the same moment that Jerry Coyne was feeding himself to his fly, I, with my brothers, was raising beef cattle to show and sell at or eat after the local 4H fair. These steers would also feed botflys on thier backs which we would find while grooming the animals. We, my brothers and I, at my father's suggestion, would take a glass pop bottle, place it over the botfly air hole, and pushing down, would pop out the larve. We would get all grossed out. By studying the larve, size shape and features, we were able to figure out which of the flys flying around us produced the larve.

Dec. 10 2013 03:18 PM
valtrese from Tampa, FL

The little blips of music you intertwine between stories are beautiful. I have a feeling a very talented person in your studio mixes them, but I'm curious if the ethereal sounds at 15:17 (as Tom Eisner's story ends) are from a song I could download?

Dec. 09 2013 03:55 PM
Annette from New York

This story brought back memories of 3 botflies that I brought back in my right leg from Belize in 2010. I had no idea why my mosquito bites lingered and grew bigger. My G.P. could not figure out what the problem was. The bites were spewing blood and oozing, my leg was swollen - very disgusting. At about week 5 I saw something poke out of a bite and using a tissue I pulled it out. I almost fainted. I chose to put mine in a zip lock bag and head to the emergency room to have the 2 others extracted. Who was going to believe that I had a worm in my leg? I work in a Bank and am not a scientist! Like the bioligist, I had about 20 doctors clicking away with their iPhones which was pretty freaky too. Finally the 2 remaining larvae were extracted and sent to a lab for analysis. Lessons? I am glad to know that many others have had this weird experience. AND wear insect repellent at all times, even during the final hours of vacation.

Dec. 07 2013 01:16 PM
Kandes from Atlanta, GA

My 10-year-old son asked me to turn to NPR last night as I was pulling up to a gas pump. We were so drawn into & intrigued by this icky & gross story that I could not get out of the car for the entirety of the segment. He said it was the coolest & most interesting thing he'd ever heard and I agree! Blessings to your deceased bot fly baby! :-) Radio Lab is our new fave on NPR!

Dec. 17 2012 06:03 AM

Thank you for giving me a great reason to take a break from working to listen to this fascinating story. I can't stop itching and it was totally disgisting, but that's what made it so enjoyable. Keep up the great work!!

Dec. 16 2012 10:09 PM
Cliff from West Sacramento, CA

Great story! I just heard it for the first time today. Once I heard it, I immediately thought of the 1959 horror film The Manster. The "eye" scene from the movie (below) woud be similar to the "pea" stage of Jerry's fly. Just like Jerry's fly, the growth on this guy's shoulder gets better and better!
The Manster:

Dec. 15 2012 01:43 AM
Rahel from Ventura CA

Oh my god. This is SO fascinating. I'm terrified of childbirth (even though I'm a female), but for some inexplicable reason, I find this utterly amazing. Definitely gross, but awesome none the less.

Jul. 01 2012 03:33 AM
Charley Eiseman from Massachusetts

If you want a visual for this, here are some closeups I took of a bot fly larva that popped out of my brother-in-law's dog:

Jan. 27 2012 12:35 PM

This was vile, yet fascinating. But I shouldn't have googled 'botfly'. UGHHHHHH

Apr. 06 2011 01:33 PM
Shawn Fitzpatrick from Whittier, CA

Best story ever! Stopped what I was doing (painting a wall) just to listen. Where can I download this story?

Apr. 06 2011 12:23 PM
Marc Whittemore

about the more revolting segment I have ever heard, anywhere -- EVER.

chunky projectiles splattering across the room here...

Apr. 03 2011 07:14 PM

What an excellent story. I'm glad I'm not in the tropics.

Mar. 31 2011 10:42 PM
Tanya from Seattle

Oh my oh my oh my!!! I think I'm going to have nightmares of the botfly!

Mar. 31 2011 06:29 PM

this is soooo grosss! ewwww!

Nov. 20 2009 08:51 AM

"Radiolab does a gross misrepresentation of science and scientists with this story."

Sure, not all scientists are like that, but as a biologist myself, I found a kindred spirit in Jerry. I had many of the same thoughts regarding a wart on the palm of my hand: all those tiny viruses are turning me into them! Neat! Especially as a scientist, it's healthy to have such innate curiosity and appreciation for how the world works.

Jun. 23 2009 03:57 PM
albeebe from Connecticut

Okay, I'm itching all over!!! EEEWWW.

Apr. 13 2009 04:32 PM
leela fireside from austin TX

It was wonderful to be sitting in Austin and here Tom Eisner's voice - he's a wonderful professor and a great story teller

Feb. 16 2009 08:10 AM
Gavin from N.E. Ohio

I actually had to stop working in my shop and just lean and listen. What a segment!

keep it up,

Jan. 31 2009 11:31 AM
Heather M. from Chester Springs, PA

This reminded me of a story from Octavia Butler called "Blood Child" about human men on another planet acting as surrogate "mothers" for parasitic aliens. At the end of the story there's a note from the author saying she wrote the story to confront her fear of botflies and because she wanted to explore the idea of male pregnancy. And that's exactly what Coyne's story sounds like. He even cared for the botfly like a mother. Too bad he didn't think to put it in a moist environment instead of a container of sand. Great story, upsetting but well done.

Jan. 18 2009 02:46 AM
anonym from disgusted.

Kindly add this warning to the story on the botfly. I was traumatized by that story, I keep thinking about it all the time, cant get it out of my head. I am also disgusted by bugs (I wasn't before). Suggest any therapy ideas here.

Radiolab does a gross misrepresentation of science and scientists with this story. We could all have lived without that story and better. This is just trying to be sensational, what is the difference between radiolab and those magazines that I see in the grocery store checkout line ?

Jan. 13 2009 03:15 PM
Maggie from Seattle

I loved this story and had to see what would come up when I googled botfly. Here's one of the results

Jan. 02 2009 11:17 PM

I've had a botfly in me too! Mine was in my arm... but my friends got them other (not so fun) places and a professor got more than 3 on his scalp! We received ours in Belize. The way we got it out was duct tape, covering the air hole, it moves toward the top and you can pull it out with a tweezers. My professor had a difficult experience with the scalp ones... similar to the guy in the story, U.S. doctors confused, etc.

Dec. 17 2008 11:50 PM
Amy from St. Louis

I heard this story last night and it was definitely one of the grossest and most fascinating stories I've ever heard. I love insects but I'll have to stop at letting one live in my forehead. I get a strange sort of shiver I've never had before just thinking about it. wow.

Dec. 15 2008 01:26 PM
Danny from San Francisco (Bay Area)

The segment on the Botfly was some of the best story telling I've ever heard in my life! Definitely the most gross story I have ever heard. I can't wait to tell this story to all of my friends, I just wish I could do a better job with the sound effects. Great job, and great program!

Dec. 14 2008 02:24 AM
Lucia from Long Island

Tom Eisner is one of the reasons I love bugs! I took a class where he did a series of lectures about plant-insect interactions, and I was literally at the edge of my seat so I could hear every word. His passion for science and his curiosity about all life are inspirational. I always wished I could thank him.

Dec. 12 2008 10:47 PM
sciencey in nyc

The last comments by Eisner were just beautiful!

Dec. 12 2008 08:34 PM
Patrice from nyc

My face was scrunched in disgust as I listened to this segment but it prompted me to go look up Botfly extractions. Even more gross, but strangely fascinating.

Dec. 12 2008 04:43 PM
kim from manhattan


Dec. 12 2008 04:00 PM
buggish from Brooklyn

The folks in my office were just screaming about a cockroach 15 minutes ago, I can't wait to tell them this story!

Dec. 12 2008 03:57 PM

Go Sox! The Botfly story is the grossest most interesting story I have ever heard. Great job with this segment.

Dec. 09 2008 09:00 PM

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