And the fungus that causes zombification is nastier than you can imagine? It’s a parasite that feeds on its host’s organs, and applies a mind-controlling technique before it explodes out of the host’s brain.
When a little ant wanders away from its large ant family and bites onto the underside of a leaf for no obvious reason, this could mean only one thing. This ant has joined the real-life walking dead.
What’s turning ants into zombies? How can they stop this zombification from spreading before it kills the entire colony?
And what other insects get their brains pickled by a deadly pathogen?
Some organisms will do anything to propagate their species. In the case of the parasitic fungus Cordyceps, this includes the mass production of zombies.
One particular genus of Cordyceps favors the carpenter ants. The fungus shamelessly possesses the ant’s body. But it doesn’t go for the quick kill. It needs the insect alive to provide the fungus with a means of transportation.
First, the parasite sits quietly inside its host, slowly chewing on the ant’s non-vital organs. But this is just a warm-up. The poor insect doesn’t know what’s coming. Until one day, its internal GPS turns on, even though the ant didn’t know it had one. The Cordyceps has released chemicals into the ant’s brain, and taken control of its body.
Now, guided by the parasite, the ant finds itself on the underside of a leaf. But not just any leaf. The fungus’ preferred spot for reproduction is about 25 cm (10 inches) off the ground and always pointing north. Hey, we’re all a little picky sometimes, right?
At this point, there’s nothing left for the ant to do: other than sit pretty while the fungus erupts out of its head and spews its spores as widely as possible. These spores then rain down on other ants, and the gross life cycle of the fungi starts all over again. The fungus won’t stop until it drives the entire colony to extinction.
But some ants are able to outsmart this zombie-maker. They lick their family members to get rid of the spores before they grow. And if the infection has already begun to put an ant on the goner list, fellow ants will escort the infected insect far away to keep the colony safe.
Ants aren’t the only victims of the mass zombification. Different genuses of Cordyceps infect different species of insects, from beetles to butterflies.Even the mind-controlling fungus itself has its own fungal killer. At least humans are on the safe side… for now.
Zombie fungi will only flourish at a certain temperature and humidity. They even need a surprisingly specific distance from the ground to reproduce. They may not have legs to move to that perfect spot themselves, but they’ve found a terrifyingly smart way to get around it. And that’s why they’re Crazy Creatures.
- Yong, Ed. 2017. “How The Zombie Fungus Takes Over Ants’ Bodies To Control Their Minds”. The Atlantic. Accessed November 12 2018.
- “When Fungus Controls Ant Behavior | Ask A Biologist”. 2018. Askabiologist.Asu.Edu. Accessed November 12 2018.
- Keartes, Sarah. 2015. “Meet The “Zombie Parasite” That Mind-Controls You, Then Explodes Out Of Your Brain | Nerdist”. Nerdist. Accessed November 12 2018
- Simon, Matt, Matt Simon, Matt Simon, Erica Klarreich, Matt Simon, Megan Molteni, Rhett Allain, and Robbie Gonzalez. 2018. “Absurd Creature Of The Week: The Zombie Ant And The Fungus That Controls Its Mind”. WIRED. Accessed November 12 2018.