However, it is real. Cymothoa exigua is a parasitic crustacean commonly referred to as the “tongue-eating louse”. Rose spotted snappers are usually the victims of this horror, but it can attack other fish that are part of eight species in two orders and four families of fishes (3 snappers, 1 grunt, 3 drums, and 1 grunion).
The creature enters the fish’s body through the gills then secures itself to the back of the fish’s tongue by hooking its claws into the tongue. This action cuts off the blood flow to the tongue so that it atrophies and eventually falls off, leaving the parasite in place. Cymothoa exigua ingests the blood going to the tongue until the tongue falls off. After that happens, the parasite feeds on blood, mucus, and any stray bits of whatever the fish is eating.
Females reach between 0.3 to 1.1 inches in length (8-29 mm) while males reach 0.3-0.6 inches long (7.5-15 mm). Scientists believe juveniles enter the fish’s gills, then attach to the tongue and grow into adulthood there.
These awful creatures live in the waters of the Gulf of California down to the northern reaches of the Gulf of Guayaquil in Ecuador.
Can Cymothoa exigua affect humans? Mercifully, no. But scientists warn if you ever pick one up that is still alive, it could give you a nasty pinch. Remember lobsters and crabs are also crustaceans, and they, with Cymothoa exigua, all seem to share the painful pinching trait.
Keep your eyes open and your cameras charged and handy!
Til the next time!