A University of Montana alum shared his knowledge of creatures that were sure to make your skin crawl at the Montana Natural History Center.
Parasitologist Mike Kinsella led the talk, which was intended as an educational lecture along the theme of Halloween. A small crowd of all ages attended to get a closer look at the 18 parasites on display.
The talk spread awareness of the commonality of people’s exposure to parasites, and engaged all those who are into the real-world minuscule monsters Kinsella studies. The CDC estimates 100 million people in the United States are with what it calls “neglected parasitic infections” at any given time, which includes Chagas disease, neurocysticercosis, toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis and trichomoniasis.
“Parasites can be anything from fleas and mosquitoes to tapeworms. Most people encounter more in their lifetime than they realize,” Kinsella said.
Kinsella, who has contributed to 195 publications, headed the discussion by telling stories about his own encounters with parasites like tapeworms, bed bugs and pinworms. He received a Ph.D in parasitology in 1969 from the University of Montana, but ultimately went back to school for a degree in pharmacy. After retirement in 1997, he has been actively studying these nightmare-inducing creepy crawlies and has 21 named after him.
“I started running a little lab at my home,” Kinsella said. “I’ve found parasites for people around the world.”
Most peoples’ goal is to keep parasites out of their home, not actively bring them in.
The constant exposure to parasites inspired Kinsella to coin the idea of an inventory of parasites he’s encountered in the form of a “personal parasite list.” He proudly shared how he contracted pinworms following a minor scuffle with snails in a pond near Flathead Lake that left him in a hot tub for two days to cope with the itching.
Kinsella said most people’s personal parasite list is likely longer than they’re aware of, but most of the time there’s no need to fear long-lasting damage to one’s health.
“Some may cause serious harm that leads to death, but usually it’s just a matter of losing some blood and nutrients,” Kinsella said.
Kinsella shared personal stories of encounters with the creatures he had. He talked about a boy from Missoula who had a 10-foot tapeworm in his lower intestine from eating slightly raw fish.
He also told stories about bed bugs forcing the University to evacuate residents from one of the family housing wings back in the 1960s, and the many different parasites, like lice and ringworm, that his own kids brought home.
Following the unsettling stories complete with blown up pictures of the parasites, attendees asked many questions, viewed the displays more closely, and were able to speak with Kinsella one-on-one.
Some of the high school students flocked over to the spooky photo booth set up by Christine Morris, community programs coordinator for the Montana Natural History Center. The most daring attendees picked up magnifying glasses to get a more personal look at the creepy crawlies.
MNHC also hosts family bird-watching every Wednesday, and will be holding a special naturalist trivia night Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.