Photo Source: National Geographic (Anand Varma)

Photo Source: National Geographic (Anand Varma)

Season three of Overheard at National Geographic comes to a close with today’s launch of episode 8, titled “How I Learned to Love Zombie Parasites.” Like last week’s episode, this one is a personal interview with a National Geographic partner rather than a dive behind-the-scenes of a project in the works. I have a feeling that these last two episodes were born out of necessity, but co-host Peter Gwin promises that season four will be debuting this fall, so we won’t have to wait long.

The episode’s sexy title is a little misleading as the majority of the episode has nothing to do with parasites, zombies or otherwise. Jumping right into the good stuff, the title comes from the Horsehair worm. Photographer Anand Varma first learned about them in college and they’re fascinating. They really want to exist inside cats, but to get there, they start with grasshoppers. They need to live in liquid, so when they’re ready to break free, they manipulate the mind of the grasshopper to find water and drown itself, next looking for a mouse as their new host. They then control the mind of the mouse to find a cat so they can jump ship to their ultimate destination. These horsehair worms are fascinating and terrifying all at the same time.

The majority of the episode is about how a boy from Atlanta, Anand Varma, grew up to be a National Geographic photographer who primarily covers tiny bugs and aquatic life. He shares that his love of nature and aquatic creatures started as a child and by the time he was in middle school, he had made up his mind to become a biologist. He went to UC Berkeley for college and brought along his dad’s Nikon COOLPIX camera, which was a fun side hobby of his.

A professor noticed that Anand brought his camera with him on every field trip and knew of a National Geographic photographer nearby who was looking for an assistant. While still in school, Anand started working for David Liittschwager and his first assignment photographic isopods in a cramped cave in Sequoia National Park cemented his desire to make this his profession. While still in school, he also took a break to follow David to Hawaii.

Photo Source: National Geographic (Anand Varma)

Photo Source: National Geographic (Anand Varma)

Another anecdote shared is his first interaction with notoriously tough National Geographic magazine editor Susan Welchman, who heard he was heading home to Atlanta to visit his family. She wanted better photos of fire ants banding together in a flood to form a life raft to survive, having received some from scientists that she was unhappy with. Anand thought he would be fired because she was not happy with the photos he first sent in, the problem being a lip of water on the side of the glass. A scientist helped Anand avoid the issue by baking the tank with FluoroPel, which gave him a clean water line on the side.

This was a fun interview with Anand Varma, who also talks about the animals he’s brought home with him to photograph, which includes a detached garage full of jellyfish. You can listen to the full episode and others at the official Overheard at National Geographic website.