Scientists have discovered a type of fungus that may have been invading the bodies of carpenter ants and controlling their behavior for over 48 millions years.
A parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has been shown to intentionally infect the ants because they inhabit the same plants and trees the fungus hopes to utilize.
Once it has invaded the ant’s body, the fungus instructs the insect to bite the underside of a leaf at the veins. As soon as the ant hits an optimal location, the fungus grows rapidly right through its body, killing its unsuspecting host as it prepares to release a new spore.
While they are under the fungi’s control, the ants leave distinct marks, also known as “death bites,” on the leaves as they bite the veins in search of a prime spot for fungal growth (EcoTone).
David Hughes of Harvard University has discovered these same bite marks on a 48 million year old leaf, leading him to believe the fungus has engaged in this zombifying practice since before humans appeared on the Earth.
Hughes told Nature News that he is confident that the fugus was controlling the ants when they made these marke because “it is not normal ant behavior to bite into the leaf vein because it has no real nutritional value to the ant and can in fact be toxic in some plant species.”
Image Credit: David Hughes, from Discover‘s 80beats
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