Nerd-Science:

The More… The Deadliest!

reating an interesting antagonist is one of the most difficult part in the development of a story. The villain is one of the keystones of the narration because it often triggers the events and provides the motivation to start the journey of the protagonist. This character should be fascinating and disturbing at the same time in order to represent a deviated philosophy with great charisma. In the macroworld of anime and manga, there are many well-written villains and it’s difficult for me to decide which is the best. However, Gotou from the body horror series Parasyte — The Maxim (also known as Kiseiju) captured my interest in a peculiar way. This character is part of an alien parasitic species that appeared on Earth at the beginning of the story. The larval stage of these organisms can enter in one host, move toward the head and replace it by maturing into the adult form. As a result, the organism gains complete control of the parasitized body. When one alien fails to reach the target organ, it substitutes another part without taking control of the rest. The ability to hijack the human body allow parasites to blend in society and feed on people without being noticed. Besides, their tissues can morph into a variety of forms, become elastic and harden into a substance similar to steel. These insanely creepy abilities make parasites an enormous threat to humanity.

“Upon researching the concept of demons, I believe that, among all life, humans are the closest thing to it. Although humans kill and eat a wide variety of life forms, my kind eats merely one or two kinds at most. We are quite frugal in comparison.” — Migi (from Parasyte — The Maxim)

If this doesn’t seem scary enough, Gotou will satisfy your bloodthirst! In fact, this antagonist is not only extremely powerful and skilled, but it is also a colonial organism composed of five parasites united in a single body. Each individual occupies one limb while the fifth coordinate the others from the head, allowing them to become one. This makes Gotou a perfect killing machine that combines sharp intelligence, agility and strength. To make matters worse, it can morph its limbs in a variety of shapes and transform himself into a nearly invincible armoured monster. In other words, the Nemesis from Resident Evil totally sucks in comparison.

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The main characters of Kiseiju in a cover of the anime. Gotou is on the right.

Parasyte has done an excellent job in the characterization of Gotou and in rendering the concept of a superorganism. During the series, this villain appears multiple times and in each moment the audience learns something more about it. The introduction highlights Gotou’s superiority to humans and most of its kin. In the successive appearances provides some clues about the colonial nature of this creature. The presence of a second personality, known as Miki, is a wonderful source of information. The parasites in Gotou’s body normally occupy fixed positions but they are self-conscious and each of them can take the lead of the colony. Gotou normally occupies the head because it is the most skilled in controlling the others. This is demonstrated by Miki, which is only able to coordinate three parasites, and, for this reason, its movements are clumsy and imprecise. Moreover, when one of them takes the lead of the body all the others remain in a dormant state and they are subjected to a continuous flood of information. This “nirvana” state is maintained until the body receives some kind of damage that destabilizes the fragile equilibrium between the individuals. The only weakness of this perfect killing machine is represented by the “mutiny” of the parasites that compose it. In a threatening situation, the individuals could rebel to their leader and they could try to disaggregate from the colony. This instability risks to destroy the otherwise invincible superorganism. So, Gotou’s real force resides in the efficient collaboration of the five parasites which behave like organs in a body.

However, such a creature cannot exist in the real world… Or can it?

Actually, the order Siphonophorae has so much in common with the fearsome Gotou. These animals are part of the phylum Cnidaria, the same of jellyfishes, corals and gorgonians. Although a siphonophore may look like a single organism, it is a floating colony composed of several interdependent individuals (called zooids). My favourite species in this group is Physalia physalis, also known as the Portuguese man o’ war. This bizarre animal floats on the water surface of tropical and subtropical regions and uses a peculiar crest to catch the wind like a sailing ship. It is composed of several specialized individuals that cooperate intimately, resulting in a colony that behaves like a single organism. The peculiar nature of P. physalis puzzled many scientists throughout history including T. H. Huxley, L. Agassiz and E. H. Haeckel which discussed extensively it. Now, let’s look at the anatomy of this interesting superorganism. On the top of the man o’ war, there is a pneumatophore, this gas-filled zooid is a modified medusa which provides buoyancy to the entire colony. The crest on the pneumatophore can be erected through a muscle contraction that increases the pressure into the gas-filled chamber. The zooids responsible for the capture of preys are known as tentacular palpons (or dactilozoids), they are equipped with a particular kind of cells, the cnidocytes. They can fire harpoon-like filaments (nematocysts) in response to stimulation. These structures can penetrate the prey and paralyze it to death through the inoculation of a toxic cocktail of substances. So, Gotou isn’t the only bad boy either, the Portuguese man o’ war shouldn’t be underestimated. When the prey is paralyzed and nearly dead the tentacular palpons move it toward gastrozoids, the individuals responsible for the external digestion and the storage of nutrients. They consume only a small fraction of the digested substances; the rest is shared with the other members of the colony. The reproductive functions are performed by the gonodendron, a structure composed of four different types of zooids: the gonophore, the palpon, the nectophore and the jelly polyp. The male and female gametes are produced only by the gonophores, but the other individuals allow movement and nourishment of the detached gonodendron. There are no individual specialized for movement apart from the nectophores in the gonodendrons. This means that P. physalis is incapable of active movement, it is transported by winds and oceanic currents. Anyway, this superorganism is the demonstration that a creature like Gotou can exist in the real world. Moreover, it shows that siphonophores exceed the alien in terms of number, diversity and specialization of individuals.

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Vaporwave Physalia physalis — by Elisa Vissani

The fearsome supervillain cannot compete with siphonophores even in terms of integration into the colony. As I already mentioned, the parasites that compose Gotou’s body are self-aware and each of them can potentially take the lead of the body or leave it in case of danger. This is the main weakness of Gotou and it overcomes it by coordinating the other individuals while they are in a state of dormancy. This doesn’t happen in most species of siphonophores because each zooid has its own nervous system, but everyone is connected to a common nerve tract. In this way there is no leader, the individuals act in synergy and they cannot survive separate from the others. Such a complex array of interactions allows most siphonophores to behave like a single organism. Some species react in coordination to a stimulus applied to a zooid by escaping from the source of pain. Others respond to the presence of their preys: the man o’ war, for example, continue to manipulate the captured fish with the tentacular palpons until it’s completely paralyzed. They move the prey toward the gastrozoids only when it is nearly dead. Some species are even capable of using some zooids as lures to attract their preys and capture them more easily. In this sense, it’s noteworthy that Gotou retains some aspects of human society. Even though the individuals are united in a single body and cooperate intimately, their collaboration reminds to a monarchy. On the other hand, the level of integration of the individuals in a siphonophore colony is barely comprehensible to the human mind. The boundaries between colony and single organism are faded in them: they are superorganisms in a deeper sense.

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Ernst Haeckel — Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 77: Siphonophorae

Another interesting aspect of Gotou as a character is its role in the fictional world of Parasyte. Differently from the majority of antagonists, it is neither the boss of an evil organisation nor an isolated character. Gotou is simply the bodyguard of a politician that tries to regulate the interaction between humans and parasites. Despite being extremely intelligent, this creature doesn’t have any masterplan, its last fight against the protagonist is purely guided by vengeance and instinct. During the story, Gotou interacts with a variety of characters and it is inserted in a complex “urban ecosystem”. Something similar can be observed also for the Portuguese man o’ war. This superorganism has different ecology compared to other siphonophores because it lives in the air-water interface. The species which occupy this peculiar habitat are known as Pleuston, they are characterized by high resistance to UV radiation, desiccation and harsh weather conditions. Moreover, P. physalis is highly venomous and it mainly feeds on small fishes captured with the tentacular palpons. This could lead to the idea that it lives alone without interacting with any other species apart from its preys. Actually, many commensal fishes eat the debris of its meals. These animals simply avoid touching the individuals equipped with cnidocytes and focus their search for food on gastrozoids and gonodendra. Only Nomeus gronovii can tolerate the venom enough to feed near the tentacles and, for this reason, it acquired the nickname Man o’ war fish.

We are fragile. We are merely a life form that cannot survive on its own. So, don’t bully us. — Tamura Reiko talking about Parasites (from Parasyte — The Maxim)

These lethal cnidarians are left alone neither by predators. Even though most of them stay away from the toxic tentacles of the man o’ war, some found a way to feed on them. In fact, P. physalis often appears in the menu of sea turtles and nudibranchs. The thick skin of the formers cannot be penetrated by the nematocysts, so, they can eat most cnidarians without poisoning risk. The latter, instead, are often resistant to the venom of these superorganisms. Moreover, the nudibranchs Glaucus atlanticus and G. marginata can store the unfired cnidocytes into specialized structures called cnidosacs and use them for self-defence. A similar strategy is also used by the octopus Tremoctopus violaceus which tears apart the tentacles of the man o’ war in order to use them as defence and hunting items. Here appears another analogy between the fearsome Gotou and the dangerous P. physalis. They are proof that no one is really invincible, even the most complex and lethal organisms are fragile at the same time. The fate of Gotou was decided by a piece of scrap soaked with toxic pollutants, let’s avoid a similar destiny for its real counterpart.

References:

  • Munro C., Vue Z., Behringer R. R., Dunn C. W., 2019, Morphology and development of the Portuguese man of war, Physalia physalis, in Scientific Reports 9, Article number: 15522
  • Gould S.J., 1985, The Flamingo’s Smile, Ch. 5 “A most ingenious paradox”
  • Hickman C. P., Roberts, L. S., & Larson, A.,1997, Integrated principles of zoology, Ch. 13
  • https://kiseijuu.fandom.com/wiki/Gotou

Credits:

  • I commissioned the astounding drawing of Physalia physalis to Elisa Vissani. Special thanks for her excellent work!
  • The image of the characters comes from the anime Parasyte — the Maxim.
  • The lithography depicting siphonophores come from the book Kunstformen der Natur of Ernst Haeckel.

What happens when you mix pop culture and biology? Let’s discover the astounding world of Nerd-Science!

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