New Fungus Turns Ants Into Zombies
Scientists have discovered four new species of fungi in Brazilian rainforests that infect carpenter ants and take over their brains. About a week after being exposed to spores from the fungi, ants enter a zombie-like state. The fungus then grows out of the ant’s head and releases spores, but not until the ant climbs to a favorable position in the rainforest canopy so the spores have a better chance of infecting other ants. The fungi were discovered in the Zona de Mata region of Brazil, which is known for biodiversity. (Source: PLoS One)
“This so-called zombie or brain-manipulating fungus alters the behaviour of the ant host, causing it to die in an exposed position, typically clinging onto and biting the adaxial surface of shrub leaves,” said lead researcher David Hughes. (Source: ABC.net)
The fungi attach themselves to carpenter ants while they walk across the forest floor. Sometimes the zombie ants gather in leafy plants before they die, and the spores are released.
The original “zombie-ant fungus” was identified in the mid-1800s. It is believed to exist in many parts of the world. One of the newly identified species, O. camponoti-novogranadensis, might be extinguished by global warming as its habitat is already drier and warmer, two things that cause it to die off.
David Hughes, one of the researchers, said, “It’s a fabulously complex organism. There is a beauty to the whole thing, whether it is the chemicals at work that take over the ant, or the spores which try one strategy and then another to find a host on the forest floor.” (Source: TheGuardian)
Various varieties of mind-controlling parasites have been around for over 40 million years, according to another study. This particular fungus, ophiocordyceps unliateralis, is specific to carpenter ants, but other mind-controlling parasites are not unheard of elsewhere in nature.