The Cat Parasite Possibly Manipulating Your Behavior — And Other Parasitic Wonders
Parasites are more than dormant feeders. Microscopic science is uncovering the ways viruses and bacteria prey on their hosts, influencing them to behave in some very strange ways.
Kathleen McAuliffe’s articles, many featured on covers, have appeared in over a dozen national magazines, including Discover, The New York Times (both the Sunday Magazine and newspaper), US News & World Report, Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly, More Magazine, Glamour, and Reader's Digest. In addition to being a feature writer, McAuliffe was a health columnist for More Magazine from 1999-2006. A decade earlier, she founded a quarterly newsletter put out by the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which she edited for the first year of its publication. From 1985 to 1988, she was a senior editor at US News & World Report, focusing on the coverage of health and science. In the six years previous to this position, she was an editor at Omni Magazine, where she assigned and prepared science articles for publication. During that period, she also co-authored Life for Sale, one of the first popular books about the genetic engineering revolution Her article, "Are We Evolving?", was featured in The Best American Science Writing 2010, edited by Jerome Groopman. The year before, she was awarded an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship to study and report on human evolution. In 2000, she received an award from the National Coalition of Women With Heart Disease in recognition of excellence in journalism. Twelve years earlier, she was honored with the Institute of Food Technology award for outstanding writing on food science and nutrition. McAuliffe was also awarded a science writing fellowship in 1996 from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. In 2011, McAuliffe was interviewed on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered, which devoted a segment to her article, "The Incredible Shrinking Brain." McAuliffe participated as a panelist on an hour-long PBS seminar, Our Genes/Our Choices, which aired across the US in the winter of 2003. She did script development and on-camera interviews for Omni: The New Frontier, a nationally syndicated TV series that began airing in October 1981. She has also appeared on other TV and radio programs. McAuliffe was educated at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, obtaining a M.A. in natural science after graduating with first-class honors. Her final year thesis on electro-encephalography (EEG) recordings of the human brain was presented at the Eastern Psychology Association Conference in 1977. McAuliffe and her husband – a research physicist at the University of Miami – are the parents of two teenagers and reside in Miami, Fl.
Kathleen McAuliffe’s articles, many featured on covers, have appeared in over a dozen national magazines, including Discover, The New York Times (both the Sunday Magazine and newspaper), US News & World Report, Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly, More Magazine, Glamour, and Reader's Digest. In addition to being a feature writer, McAuliffe was a health columnist for More Magazine from 1999-2006. A decade earlier, she founded a quarterly newsletter put out by the American Foundation for AIDS Research, which she edited for the first year of its publication. From 1985 to 1988, she was a senior editor at US News & World Report, focusing on the coverage of health and science. In the six years previous to this position, she was an editor at Omni Magazine, where she assigned and prepared science articles for publication. During that period, she also co-authored Life for Sale, one of the first popular books about the genetic engineering revolution
Her article, "Are We Evolving?", was featured in The Best American Science Writing 2010, edited by Jerome Groopman. The year before, she was awarded an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship to study and report on human evolution. In 2000, she received an award from the National Coalition of Women With Heart Disease in recognition of excellence in journalism. Twelve years earlier, she was honored with the Institute of Food Technology award for outstanding writing on food science and nutrition. McAuliffe was also awarded a science writing fellowship in 1996 from the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.
In 2011, McAuliffe was interviewed on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered, which devoted a segment to her article, "The Incredible Shrinking Brain." McAuliffe participated as a panelist on an hour-long PBS seminar, Our Genes/Our Choices, which aired across the US in the winter of 2003. She did script development and on-camera interviews for Omni: The New Frontier, a nationally syndicated TV series that began airing in October 1981. She has also appeared on other TV and radio programs. McAuliffe was educated at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, obtaining a M.A. in natural science after graduating with first-class honors. Her final year thesis on electro-encephalography (EEG) recordings of the human brain was presented at the Eastern Psychology Association Conference in 1977. McAuliffe and her husband – a research physicist at the University of Miami – are the parents of two teenagers and reside in Miami, Fl.
Kathleen McAuliffe: We know that parasites can make us sick, of course, and siphon off our nutrients, but it's very surprising to hear that some of them, in fact there may be a large number, at least a hundred are known about at this point in time manipulate the behavior of their host in order to enhance their own transmission. And the best way to understand this phenomenon I think is with an example. And one is a cat parasite called Toxoplasma Gondii or just Toxoplasma for short. I first learned about this parasitic manipulation while just reading about scientific research and I came across a study that showed that rodents that are infected with this parasite, they can pick up the parasite from the ground. Cats defecate this parasite so rodents as they are scavenging around can pick up the parasite and it then invades their brain and it actually tinkers with the animal's neural circuits in such a fashion that it makes it attracted to the scent of cat urine.
And when I say attracted I mean sexually attracted. The rodents become sexually aroused by the scent of cat urine so they approach and needless to say they're not long for this world they soon end up in the belly of a cat and that's the only place where this parasite can sexually replicate. So that's its little trick. And it does many other things as well. For example, the same parasite goes to the testicles and jacks up production of the sex hormone testosterone. In females, by means nobody's figured out yet, it can increase the level of the sex hormone progesterone. And in both cases these changes make the rodent more embolden and cause the rodent to sort of lower its guard and to act in foolish ways around cats. So that's yet another example of other tricks it has for getting back into the belly of a cat.
This parasite can also infect us. One of the ways we can get it is changing a cat's litter box. And the current thinking in medicine is that the parasite it mainly poses a threat to a developing fetus and can harm the developing baby's nervous system or even cause blindness. And it's also well known to be a threat to people who are immuno-compromised, so for example, people who have received transplanted organs or being treated with chemotherapy. And it's still assumed that for most healthy people it poses no threat that once the parasite gets inside the brain that I just hunkers down inside neurons never again to cause any problems. But there's now several labs, both in Europe and the United States that are challenging that dogma. And they have uncovered a lot of evidence that for a small percentage of people the dormant infection may indeed have adverse consequences. Nobody yet has a handle on what percentage but about 20 percent of all Americans are infected with the parasite. So people's guess is that we're only talking about a small percentage of people who have these adverse responses.
But among other things it's a link to mental illness. So people with schizophrenia, for example, they are two to three times more likely to have antigens against the parasite. It's also been linked to manic depression and it's been linked to suicide. There was actually a study done in 22 nations in Europe and the researchers found that suicide increased in direct proportion to the prevalence of the parasite in each country. And it's been a link to dangerous driving. Several studies in a few different countries have shown that people who test positive for the parasite are more likely to be in car accidents. So one theory, nobody knows for sure why what the reason for this association is, but one theory is that just as rodents lower their guard behave in a cocky way maybe people behind the wheel of a car are less vigilant. Or there's also research that shows that infected people have slightly slower reaction times so that's perhaps another factor that may influence their driving. I should emphasize these are all correlational studies, but as scientists have learned more about what this parasite does to the rodent brain it does make them think it's plausible that the dormant infection is indeed causing trouble for some individuals.
There are many amazing examples of parasites in nature that are manipulating behavior. One of my favorite examples is a parasitic barnacle. Suspend any preconceived notions you have about barnacles because this of barnacle is very iconoclastic; it doesn't have a shell; it doesn't attach to the sides of peers or to rocks. It's free-living during one phase of its lifecycle, which at that point it can alight on a crab and inject a small clump of its cells into the crab. And those cells then grow into a tangle of root like structures and these roots wrap around all the crab's internal organs and eventually even sterilize the crab. And where the crab would normally grow a brood pouch on the bottom of its belly to incubate it's young, the parasitic barnacle pushes out of the crab and grows a brood pouch of its own. And from that moment forward this crab lives and exists solely to feed the parasite and to take care of it's young. It waffs oxygen rich water around the brood pouch to keep the parasite's offspring well oxygenated. And then when its young are ready to be born the crab then goes into deeper water and bobs up and down and releases the parasite's babies into the currents were they then go off into the world only to commandeer the minds and bodies of more crabs. I mean to me this is the closest real life thing to a body snatcher, science fiction's idea of a body snatcher. I even call them robocrabs because they are basically like an amphibious robot controlled by this parasitic barnacle.
There is many other great examples in nature. Another one that I think is very impressive is a parasitic wasp and it will grab hold of an Orb spider and attach its egg to the abdomen of the spider. And then as this egg hatches into a larva the larva secretes all kinds of chemicals that effectively instruct the spider to build it a nursery. So the spider abandons its normal weaving pattern, it stops making that sort of classic circular motif and instead creates a sort of hammock like structure for the parasitic wasp's larva and the larva actually attach to the center of this net. And the spider even weaves a sort of decorative motif around the parasite to protect it from its own enemies. It's something even think fundamental as how a spider weaves can be radically changed by these parasitic wasps. And there's at least a dozen of them and they all induce completely different kinds of webs. So that's one example of I think a really impressive example of a parasitic manipulation.
There is a parasitic worm that gets into killifish, it's a very common fish found in California esrines, and it invades the fish's brain and the fish as a result rise to the surface and flip over on their sides and basically waive their fins at predatory birds that are circling overhead, which that needless to say swoop down and eat the fish. And the parasitized fish are much, much more likely to be caught by birds, at least four times more likely to be caught. And what the parasitic worm appears to do is it acts on parts of the brain that are controlled by serotonin, the neurotransmitter serotonin. And the infected fish seem normal and healthy in every single way except they're much more mellow. They're like a fish on Prozac. So that's how that manipulation works.
Another manipulation that actually makes me shudder when I even think about it, it's a fungus. And what happens is ants as they're on the forest floor they may pick up a spore of this fungus from the ground and there is nothing domicile about this fungus because as soon as it attaches to the ant it burrows into the ant and it starts rapidly growing. And as it's doing this it instructs the ant at exactly solar noon to go to the nearest sapling to climb exactly one foot above the ground to go to the northwestern a part of the plant, lock onto the main vein of the leaf and then this fungus, and this is the part of the creeps me out, like sprouts from the ant's head and it grows this long stock. And at the tip of the stock is this fruiting body that then explodes and rains spores down on more ants that are walking along the forest floor below.
Parasites are more than dormant feeders. Microscopic science continues to uncover the very active ways in which viruses and bacteria prey on their hosts, influencing them to behave in some very strange ways. Perhaps the most famous of these is the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which cats defecate and then rodents pick up from scavenging on the ground. Once inside the rodent, the parasite alters the animal's neurocircuitry such that it becomes sexually attracted to cats. Naturally it's existence proves short-lived from this point forward as the rodent actively courts its main predator. Once in the belly of the cat, the parasite is free to reproduce once more — its bizarre life cycle complete and ready to begin again.
Science journalist and disease researcher Kathleen McAuliffe was shocked to learn that the parasite could — and does — also affect humans. In fact, approximately twenty percent of Americans are believed to be infected with Toxoplasma gondii, which potentially influences their behavior in adverse ways. McAuliffe reports that schizophrenia patients are likely to have two to three times the amount of virus antigens in their body. In addition, international studies have found that suicide rates increase proportionally to the virus's infection rate. Of course any behavior changes caused by the virus are likely to be subtle beyond direct detection, but its effect on human behavior is real.
Another parasite McAuliffe profiles is the parasitic barnacle which can attach itself to a crab and inject a small clump of its cells into the crab. "Those cells then grow into a tangle of root like structures," she says, "and these roots wrap around all the crab's internal organs and eventually even sterilize the crab. Where the crab would normally grow a brood pouch on the bottom of its belly to incubate it's young, the parasitic barnacle pushes out of the crab and grows a brood pouch of its own. And from that moment forward this crab lives and exists solely to feed the parasite and to take care of it's young."
It all goes to show the wonder of the microscopic world, and how our free will is so commonly influenced by factors widely out of our control. Beyond social, cultural, and historical factors, there are biological agents inside of us which affect how our brain functions, and so how we interact with the world around us.
Kathleen McAuliffe's book is This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society.
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For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.