Nasal Bots: Deer Parasites Straight Out of Nightmares

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These botfly larvae infest deer sinus cavities, but they're fairly common and relatively harmless

A few weeks ago, I was caping out the skull of a buck my buddy Phil killed with us during the December muzzleloader season. We’d already trimmed and packaged the venison, and just needed to boil and clean the skull for Phil’s drive home to New York. As I was trimming the hide away from the buck’s nose, a white, wriggling maggot the size of a jelly bean rolled out of the nasal cavity and onto the skinning table. 

Phil, who was standing next to me sipping a celebratory cold beer, gasped and said, “What in the Sam Hell is that?” 

Nasal bots revealed while prepping a deer skull for a Euro mount. Image by Will Brantley

“I don’t know,” I said, poking at the worm with the point of my knife blade. “But it reminds me of the ear bug from Wrath of Khan.” Then another worm, white and bristly and perhaps even larger than the first, wallowed itself out of the skull and onto the table, followed by yet another. All told, that buck must’ve had 10 worms in its head, and they rolled out in succession, as if we’d paid a full dollar to see them. I smashed one of them with the pommel of my knife and it smeared into a white, sticky paste. I stepped aside to holler at my wife and son, who were in the kitchen of the lodge cooking lunch. 

“Y’all come out here and look at the maggots that were in Phil’s buck’s nose! It’ll give you nightmares for a month!” 

My son, Anse, 7 years old, took a look at the writhing parasites and said, “Those things look like good bluegill bait, Deeds. What are they?”

Phil was already consulting Google on his phone. “They’re called nasal bots,” he said, “and they’re the larvae of a type of fly that lays its eggs around the deer’s nose. After hatching, the worms crawl into the deer’s nasal passages where they grow up, fall out, and then turn into more flies.” 

The fly, from the genus Cephenemyia, and its larvae is actually one of the more common parasites, not just of whitetails but all cervids. According to online resources like this entry from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, the worms can cause irritation, coughing, and sneezing but are otherwise harmless to deer and to people. If you spend much time fully caping out deer skulls, you’re all but guaranteed to see them for yourself.    

Still, “harmless” or not, I considered the sensation of 10 of these worms crawling about in my sinuses for the duration of their full metamorphosis. I couldn’t fathom it, since one stray nostril hair has been known to aggravate me so much as to ruin my entire day. 

Smashing the rest of the worms and then burning the table — and perhaps the entire lodge — seemed to be the logical next step, but we settled for cleaning the table with bleach, finishing our work boiling the skull, and adding nasal bots as No. 1,073 to our list of reasons why the resiliency of whitetails is something to behold.  

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