Home Life Flesh-eating bugs swarm beaches: ‘Mini-sharks’ biting swimmers’ feet

Flesh-eating bugs swarm beaches: ‘Mini-sharks’ biting swimmers’ feet

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They’re like shrimp with a foot fetish.

There’s a new marine menace besides the onslaught of sharks on the US coastline: Sunbathers in Southern California are being bitten by hordes of flesh-eating bugs, known as “mini-sharks,” which have apparently acquired a taste for human toes.

One of the victims, Tara Sauvage recalled having her tootsies savaged while walking along a beach in De Anza Cove, San Diego.

“It was painful!” the distraught beach-goer told CBS8 of the attack. “I jumped out of the water and this was so shocking. I had blood all over my foot and in between my toes.”

She added, “It was like small piranhas had bit me.”

These voracious toe-biters are actually a critter known as water-line isopods (Excirolana chiltoni), a relative of the lovable roly-poly which grows to 0.3 inches long and travels in swarms of up to 1,000 critters, Livescience reported.

“They can be pretty nasty when they get going,” said invertebrate zoologist Richard Brusca.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The tiny foot-fetishist, which are found year-round on coastlines spanning California and the Pacific Northwest, spend most of their lives buried in the sand, waiting for carcasses and even living animals to wash ashore.

“They like to eat fresh meat like a dying animal or battered animal,” Ryan Hechinger, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told CBS8.

When such edible flotsam presents itself, the isopods use their serrated mandibles to “cut quickly and cleanly into” its flesh, according to a 1993 article by the Los Angeles Times, Livescience reported. As a result, these scavengers can skeletonize carcasses rapidly like miniature food processors — earning them the moniker “mini sharks” by invertebrate zoologist Richard Brusca.

In fact, ichthyologists even employ these sentient buzzsaws to strip the flesh from the bones of dead fish so they can study their skeletons.

“They can be pretty nasty when they get going,” Brusca told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. He compared these ravenous flesh-eaters to a “wolf pack” with the bite of a mosquito.

The waterline isopod is a close relative of terrestrial isopods like sow bugs [picture].
The waterline isopod is a close relative of terrestrial isopods like sow bugs [picture].
Getty Images/iStockphoto

While bites on humans are uncommon, they can occur anywhere that the critters congregate in large numbers.

The Los Angeles Times cited the infamous isopod plague of 1993, which saw an uptick in attacks along the California coastline due to skyrocketing populations. One unfortunate little girl even had the biting bugs infiltrate her diaper.

“They are totally known to bite people,” said Hechinger, who has reportedly been attacked many times, CBS8 reported.

Despite their hankering for human flesh, it’s rare that the krill-like critters cause any real damage. Recent isopod victim Sauvage recalled being able to wash the bugs off her feet, whereupon she felt fine in 10-15 minutes, per CBS8.

Hechinger, for one, views these biting bugs as an integral part of the underwater “ecosystem” akin to aquatic custodians. “They’re nothing bad,” the fish enthusiast declared. “They eat dead fish so it doesn’t stink like dead fish in the water.”

In fact, the isopods actually pose more of a threat to people post-mortem as their flesh-ravaging tendencies often make it impossible for coroners to identify drowning victims, according to LiveScience. They’ve also proven a scourge in fish farms, where the penned-in fish can’t escape these toothy crustaceans.

Victim Tara Sauvage had her tootsies savaged while walking along a beach in De Anza Cove, San Diego.
Victim Tara Sauvage had her tootsies savaged while walking along a beach in De Anza Cove, San Diego.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Perhaps more dangerous is the waterline isopod’s close relative, Cirolana harfordi, which was responsible for a bloody attack on the feet of a teen wader in Melbourne, Australia in 2017. He initially mistook the bites for pins and needles until he left the water and saw that his feet were missing swatches of skin as if they’d been flayed, per the BBC.

“It’s only when you get the potential for hundreds or thousands of them to start biting you, for a long period, that you get the type of injury that [he] had,” said Professor Richard Reina, from Monash University, Australia, of the horror movie-evoking incident. “Unless you’re effectively numb, [usually] you’re going to notice and get out of the water before that happens.”

Some scientists speculated that the boy had interrupted the animals during a feeding session.

In the realm of flesh-ravaging isopods, the grand-daddy is undoubtedly the recently discovered Bathynomus yucatanensis.

This deep-sea skin-stripper, which grows to 1.5 feet long and looks like an animatronic Godzilla baddie, can reportedly devour an entire alligator corpse in 51 days.

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