A hyperparasite is "a parasite whose host is itself a parasite" and is the closest analogy to an apex predator in the ecology of parasites. Human sociability, intelligence and status as apex predators allowed us to develop civilization. What conditions would pressure a hyperparasite (or hyperparasitoid) to develop social structure, swarm intelligence and eventually civilization?

EDIT: This is not about parasitic aliens that invade Earth to take over humans a la The Puppet Masters, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek, Animorphs, and so forth. Those sorts of parasites would themselves be the hosts of the hyperparasites.

  • $\begingroup$ Have you seen Stargate? $\endgroup$
    – iAdjunct
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ Does this hyperparasite parasitise for its entire life cycle? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ @Scott Downey: parasites, other than parasitoids, generally parasitize for their entire lifecycle. $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ Though I really like the question and I am thinking about it, I find it much harder to understand how a species moves from many advantageous behaviours to civilisation, than to specify this to parasites (of any order). Your other categories seem a bit easier. $\endgroup$
    – Ludi
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ Well, if you consider that some people think humans are parasites on Earth...then the parasites who infect us are hyperparasites! While this doesn't answer the question, it does help reduce the complexity of the theory. So, you just have to get our parasites to evolve...rather than our parasites parasites to evolve! And we are back to the go'uold! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 18:34

4 Answers 4


If the parasite was a symbiote you can then allow for the creation of civilisation. Purely parasitic life forms doesn't strike me as gaining any evolutionary or reproductive advantage from intelligence.

So how can the zombie fungus that infects carpenter ants (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) evolve? Or the tongue eating louse Cymothoa exigua? Or a mammal's intestinal worm? If the symbiotic relationship helped the combined species.

Some rules:

The parasite cannot kill the host.

The parasite infected host would need to be more likely to reproduce than an uninfected host. So increased disease immunity, better nutrition/size or better reflexes/competition for mates.

The "intelligence" would have to exist in the parasite, so it must be capable of influencing or controlling the host behaviour.

So I think you need to look at a Symbiote that can attach to the nervous system or brain of a host or can fully replace a head, brain or central nervous system. Similar to the zombie fungus without the death of the host.

One symbiotic relationship humans have is with their gut bacteria. Without it we cannot survive (nor digest most of the food we eat). Some theories of cognitive impairment and other disability suggest gut bacteria byproduct toxin may be responsible for everything from IBS to Autism. But I can't see a way to make the bacteria the brains of the operation.

So a tongue louse or brain worm could do it.

Hyperparasite Update

So you want to specifically target a Hyperparasite (a parasite of a parasite).

The biggest obstacle is relatively more primitive biology as you go down the food chain.

It is unlikely that the parasite would be more biologically sophisticated than the host organism. So your hyperparasite has to evolve intelligence and civilisation (and hence more complex/sophisticated biology than the parasite which hosts it while being hosted by a host.

Doable. But rarer. Plus you have to overcome controlling the parasite and then the original host. It is a tough ask for a hyperparasite to develop civilisation if it is just hitching a ride on the parasite's host. Unless the host is massive, say a blue whale or bigger and the host becomes the equivalent of our planet, and the entire hyperparasite civilisation is contained with one host. Then you can allow the hyperparasite infected parasite to jump to a new host thereby colonising a new planet.

So a tongue-louse zombie-fungus hyperparasite infects a parasitic version of a pilot fish which in turn infects a shark or whale.

The hyperparasite must be in a symbiotic relationship with its host (the parasite) and that parasite should be in symbiosis with its host. Antibiosis anywhere along that chain would be detrimental to civilisation development.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The tapeworm made me do it! $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 18:26
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Since the hyperparasite's physiology would be so simplistic, I would operate under the hypothesis that any intelligence would an emergent property of hyperparasite colonies forming neutral networks. Since their nutritional needs are accommodated by the hosts, they may devote all their energy to becoming a brain and gonads. Does that make sense? $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Anonymous - I think that's a really great idea! I was envisioning a full-on human-style civilization with tools and architecture and centers of learning, meaning that the hyperparasites would change their lifestyle, much as the development of human agriculture changed us from hunter-gatherers to permanent settlements to cities. $\endgroup$
    – Xplodotron
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Xplodotron: I find it unlikely that their civilization would develop along similar paths. Their mental architecture is fundamentally different. Furthermore, if every "mind" is a colony of individual parasites, does it stand to reason that transferring individuals from one colony to another would share the information they store? $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Anonymous I really like your ideas there. I also agree that the civilisation would be so alien that we almost may not recognise it. $\endgroup$
    – paulzag
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 14:25

Get In Me Belly!

In a nutshell: for humans, "civilization" really got going with the agricultural revolution, which led to permanent settlements, which led to division of labor, elite classes, then writing and accounting. And of course, trade and war and religion and all the things you find interesting when you're not constantly starving.

You Scratch My Back...

But none of that would have happened unless we had the need and the means of invention. In this case, the "need" was safety. We evolved as social creatures. This is because numbers provide comparative safety compared to going it alone. Usually, prey animals like to stick together. It spreads out the risk of being targeted.

When in groups, certain cooperative behavior tends to emerge. For example, most foraging herds or flocks develop a system of watching out for predators (vigilance behavior) and a simple set of warning calls. You also have some kind of understood communication. You may have cooperative parenting and group defense tactics (like how bovines often circle the wagons).

This has been a successful evolutionary behavioral model for dozens of millions of years. But you don't see any animal "civilizations." That's because you also require intelligence.

Keep Bangin' Those Rocks

The thing about evolution is, mutations happen. Most of them are bad. But every so often a mutant has a (small) advantage over others in his generation, and that mutant gets to pass on the mutant gene, leading to more mutants.

Some say you can look at intelligence as just another evolutionary feature. A cerebral and behavioral mutation that turned out to be kinda handy for dealing with situations that would kill a dumber individual (or get you laid more than a dumber individual).

The thing is, human intelligence comes at a huge cost: calories. Powering a human brain can be 20% of a day's calories. So if you're gonna sport a brain, it had better be worth it or you're just as dead as any other idiot. So why did intelligence work out for humans? Because we're risk takers. (Is one theory, anyway.) As the changing climate turned forest into tundra, we were forced out of the trees. So we had to deal with new environments, find new foods, escape from different predators. Intelligence was good for that. As we became omnivores we had to come up with hunting tactics because we were pretty weak compared to the other animals out there.

What's My Motivation?

Civilization = Numbers + Food + Intelligence.

Hyperparasites sound gross and it's not helping that there are probably hundreds of them infesting a single host. Ick! But that host is also probably in a group of hundreds infesting some other poor sap. Can you say Hyperparasite Party! Social behavior can be beneficial in any situation where two heads are better than one. I already mentioned predation. But also, maybe it's difficult to find and latch onto a host, so at some point in their evolution the hyperparasites figured out how to work together somehow and they increased their success rate.

What's the "agricultural revolution" equivalent for hyperparasites? I would say these hyperparasites would have to make the leap from finding hosts in the wild to cultivating them in controlled environments. (This would be like if humans had ranches where we grew elephants that we lived in.) But since these are hyperparasites, it's obvious how to cultivate host-parasites: you cultivate the host-parasites' hosts! (This would be like if humans grew a lot of peanuts because elephants like peanuts and then when an elephant comes to eat the peanuts we move into the elephant.)

The Great Material Continuum

So, strangely, a hyperparasite civilization could actually start with the cultivation of the food that feeds the host upon which the parasite-host feeds ('cos hosts need to eat too). (This would be like if humans made a lot of fertilizer to grow peanuts, to lure elephants, to live in.) It's a pure and simple vertically integrated production model. You gotta admit that would take some smarts.


I seriously doubt a realistic answer to this is possible, as we would have to understand what separates the genesis of intelligence from the genesis beneficial behaviours and actual civilisation from "mere" intelligence. However, I tried to think up some ideas that might be productive for science fiction.

Firstly, one way to drive a social structure in the most primitive sense (consider ants or bees) would be diversification within the species - such as exhibited by Queens, workers, drowns. Yet, one might turn this into a hen and egg problem.

I don't think the restriction to a parasite of any order is crucial, but I will stick with it. Let's say our first order parasites Antrasi are a species of fungus living on the hairy parts of mammalian skin. Especially heads. Our second order parasites Betrisi were originally fairly standard lice-like animals feeding off fungus. Over time they adapted to the specific Antrasi fungus.

The problem with Antrasi is, that, after about 6 months, it destroys the skin, so that it kills itself. Luckily, there exist different types of it. If they infect a head in succession, they restore the Ph, so that the skin remains intact and they can keep living. The problem is, that such a transition is unlikely to occur through natural dissemination of Antrasi spores. Here Betrisi come into play.

The Betrisi-Scout is a subtype capable of wide range flight. Every 6 months it flies from head to head, seeking sleeping individuals infected with suitable fungi. The worker is in charge of harvesting large quantities of fungi and transportation to the other host head. It also produces suitable chemicals to facilitate quick growth of the newly displaced colonies. Over time Betrisi might evolve complicated behaviours, just like bees or ants. How they might transition from these primitive stages to intelligence, is an insanely difficult question.

If one is willing to be even more unrealistic, one might endow Queens with feromones inducing mutual attraction in suitable (super) hosts. That would help bringing them closer together!

Obviously, if one already believes in intelligent parasites, it is trivial to show how all manner of cunning and cooperation (between colonies) would aid them. The trouble is, you asked how they would become intelligent and that is certainly a Noble Prize question. It is not entirely clear to me what qualifies as swarm intelligence but a high degree of communication between colonies is obviously desirable. I want everything to be tightly synchronised. Ideally, I want all human couples determined by this rationale!


You mentioned The Puppetmasters. Well, what if, unknown to humans studying the invaders, the phenotype of the slugs are just dumb animals. They are used as an interface from their native biology to humans, but are themselves “ridden” by the actual invaders. That would be an awesome twist to a remake!

«What conditions would pressure a hyperparasite (or hyperparasitoid) to develop social structure, swarm intelligence and eventually civilization?»

I recall another story were an alien planet had an ecosystem that was filled with “riders”. Maybe that’s the case here. The development of intelligence could proceed as a completely separate trait in isolation from other physical characteristics, as the intelligent animal could “ride” any of a large selection of other organisms, chosen for the environment or (later) the profession.

They would breed animals and domesticate them, for this purpose. They would develop the social structure and eventual civilization, but from a time of prehistory be active in breeding their “bodies” to be what they want.

This includes another small “slug” that can itself ride a larger selection of animals incompatible to them naturally. That's a common thing in their ecosystem, so it’s not unreasonable to find one.

Now they breed that, for thousands of years, to become better at interfacing to them and eventually becomes a semi-permanent body for the meta-rider during its life.

The intelligent creatures riding the slugs riding the large animal can be a normal singular being, with no need to make it a “swarm intelligence”. Supposing that they are too small to be individual beings is another issue, and how a bunch of tiny bodies come to create a collective is explored in another series of questions already.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .