Plague of Flesh-Eating Bugs Are Munching on People's Feet in California

Swarms of microscopic sea bugs with needle-sharp teeth have been munching on people's feet in California.

One woman was walking along a beach in De Anza Cove, San Diego, when she was bitten by the tiny creatures.

"It was painful! I was like uh! I jumped out of the water and this was so shocking. I had blood all over my foot and in between my toes," Tara Sauvage told CBS8.

"It was like small piranhas had bit me."

isopod
Stock image of a marine isopod. Excirolana chiltoni, a tiny species of marine isopod, has been biting people's feet in the shallows of California beaches, drawing blood. iStock / Getty Images Plus

The bugs have been determined to be a tiny isopod called Excirolana chiltoni, which live in the shallow waters of the Pacific Ocean and seasonally migrate up and down the coast.

"It is an isopod, a relative of roly-polys that live in the ocean and in very shallow waters all the way up to Alaska and Japan. They are totally known to bite people. They really hang out in the water. They like to eat fresh meat like a dying animal or battered animal," Ryan Hechinger, a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told CB8.

Excirolana chiltoni are tiny, only growing to around 0.3 inches long. They are scavenging animals, using their sharp teeth to tear flesh from animals, both living and dead. The critters have sharp, saw-toothed mandibles designed to "cut quickly and cleanly into skin," according to a report from 1993 in the Los Angeles Times.

While painful and capable of drawing blood, they aren't very dangerous to humans: once Sauvage had washed the bugs off her feet, she felt fine in a matter of minutes.

The isopods actually provide an important service to the marine ecosystem, breaking down the flesh of dead animals as part of the decomposition cycle.

"They're nothing bad. They are part of the natural ecosystem. What use are they? They eat dead fish so it doesn't stink like dead fish in the water," Hechinger said.

They can be a nuisance in areas where the breaking down of bodies isn't wanted, however, including in drowning victims. According to centralcoastbiodiversity.org, these bugs can break down a body to such a degree over a long period of time that they make it harder for forensic investigations to identify drowning victims.

A closely related species of scavenging isopod, Cirolana harfordi, is thought to have caused more severe bleeding from the ankles of a teenager in Melbourne, Australia, in 2017. Experts thought that perhaps the teenager got unlucky and walked into a group of them as they were feeding on something else.

"It's only when you get the potential for hundreds or thousands of them to start biting you, for a long period, that you get the type of injury that [he] had," Professor Richard Reina, from Monash University, Australia, told the BBC.