Scientists discover Zombie ants in Brazil
A newly discovered fungus takes control of the minds of ants and forces them to spread its spores.
'Zombie ants' may sound like the title of an Ed Wood movie, but, according to National Geographic, they are quite real. Oddly, there's nothing very zombie-like about the actual ants. It's only when a particular fungus takes over the ant's brain that things get weird.
Once the "stalk of the newfound fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani infects an ant, the ant gives up control over its own body. After the fungus is in control, it forces the ant to scamper toward "a location ideal for the fungi to grow and spread their spores." Then, it's lights out for the ant. Who knew a fungus could be so diabolical?
These wild discoveries were made by a group in Brazil headed by entomologist David Hughes. National Geographic published a series of pictures of ants that have "lost their minds" to the fungus. You can check out a sample of them below.
Healthy Camponotus rufipes ants scamper across a Brazilian forest floor.
A Zombie Fungus Is Born
A white fungus stalk of the Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis species begins to poke through the head of a zombie ant two days after death. Also noticeable are faint, white, slightly fuzzy fungal growths on the ant's joints. Once the insect dies, the fungus rapidly spreads through the body. During the first couple days, though, very little evidence of the fungus is visible from the outside.
Zombie Infection Spreads
During later stages of Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis infection, the fungus rapidly consumes the nutrients inside a zombie ant and begins to colonize the outside of the ant's body, as pictured. The fungus stalk growing from the back of the head also becomes longer and more noticeable.
The mature fungus stalk, shown growing from a zombie ant's head during the final stage of infection, differs among fungi species.
Bite of the Living Dead
Lodged in a zombie ant's brain, the fungi species "direct" the dying ants to anchor themselves to leaves or other stable places, as pictured above—providing a stable "nursery" for the fungus. For instance, as the Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani fungus is about to kill the ant, the insect bites down hard into whatever substance it's standing on. This attachment is so strong that a dead zombie ant can remain stationary even when hanging upside down, the scientists say.
More Photos from National Geographic
Zombie Fungus Rears Its Ugly Head
A stalk of the newfound fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani, grows out of a "zombie" ant's head in a Brazilian rain forest.
Even for zombie fungi, things don't always go as planned. For example, in this picture of two dead zombie ants, the upper ant has bitten down on the neck of the lower ant rather than a leaf—perhaps depriving the fungus of a stable growing spot.
Wasp Stung by Zombie Fungus
Ants aren't the only zombie-fungi hosts—other insects also fall prey to fungus. Above, a wasp is infected by a Cordyceps fungus species that hasn't yet been named or formally documented. Fungi of the Cordyceps genus are the products of a tightly evolved arms race between hosts and parasites, study author Hughes noted. That means the fungi are often locked into one type of host—a specialization that might spell doom for fungi species as host species die out.
Unlike ants, many insect species that fall victim to zombie fungi are very difficult to identify after the fungus has spread around their bodies—as with this fly—the scientists noted. Overall, fungi help keep nature working smoothly, Hughes added. "They may be less cuddly than pandas ... but for the overall health of the planet, fungi are inestimably more important."
Cricket No More
Crickets too can fall prey to zombie fungi (as pictured), though little is known about the fungus species that brought this insect to its horrific end. Hughes plans to remedy that—and expects to find many more zombie fungus species in the forests of Brazil. "This is only the tip," he said, "of what will be a very large iceberg."
(Now with a slow-motion video of an ant... again don't come in this post if you can't stand this stuff. ;))