Ant Zombieland: A deadly Thai fungus turns ants into the living dead

By Marisa Mazart

At work, the host contracts a deadly fungus. The fungus grows inside, gradually taking over the host’s body. Eventually the host dies, but not before the fungus uses its body to spread to the next victim. This scenario sounds like a B-grade movie classic, or perhaps a pitch for the next great zombie movie, but it’s actually the real deal.

Don’t worry, human’s aren’t on the menu. This particular zombie attack should only scare carpenter ants in Thailand. The parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis attacks the ant’s brain and body, tearing through the creature’s muscle and soft tissues.

Like any classic zombie flick, the ants at first seem normal – they continue tending their nests, feeding, and interacting with other ants. But after three to nine days these zombie ants begin wandering aimlessly, eventually convulsing until they fall into the cooler and moister climes that are nearer to the forest floor. There the fungus can reproduce.

While their human counterparts crave braaaains, the zombie ants instead crave leaves – a craving caused by the fungus’ ability to change how they react to pheremones. Once they clamp down on a leaf the fungus releases fibers in the ant’s mouth causing a “lock jaw” effect. Although the ant has been close to dead for the entire ordeal, the fungus completes its task by releasing a final toxin to actually kill the ant.

Just like an old western, the final showdown happens at “high noon.” For some reason not yet discovered, the fungus kills the ant in the very middle of the day as the ant is in mid bite on tropical vegetation. This is the “death grip” that characterizes the ants that have been infected by the fungus. Once the ant is dead, the fungus continues to grow inside, turning the ant’s body into an incubator for the next generation of fungus. Eventually, the fungus will grow from the ant’s head and release spores.

Could a horror like this ever strike humans? Probably not. Ants are dramatically different than human beings in both behavior and body chemistry. So far there is no evidence of anything similar attacking more complex creatures.

But there are still investigations going on with this parasitic fungus to find out exactly its course and how humans can turn the tables around and control the fungus. David Hughes, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University who is currently studying the fungus aims to answer the question “How can we use this [discovery] to control ants, which are, after all, devastating pests in many places?”

While this may seem like a pretty fancy method of pest control, the study could bear fruit, not only in the field of entymology, but also in understanding some of the most devious parasitic organisms on Earth.

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