Just when you thought it was safe to have a picnic, scientists tell us about a parasitic fungus that turns ants into zombies! A veritable zombie apocalypse of ants stumbling across world picnic tables and destroying mankind one potato salad bowl at a time!
OK, calm down and put away the insecticide. The existence of the Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis, better known as the zombie ant fungus, has been known for some time. It really does turn carpenter ants into zombies in the Amazonian rain forests.
Here’s how the fungus works. The ants step on spores that have fallen to the forest floor. The fungus infects the ant and takes control of its brain, compelling it to climb a tree or vine, chomp down on a leaf and die. Then, in a scene more out of “Alien” than “Night of the Living Dead,” a scary-looking stalk filled with spores pops out of the ant corpse and drops them to the forest floor, where the process begins all over again … for ever and ever until all ants are zombies.
This seems like a slow process and zombie ant world domination could happen much faster if the fungus made the zombie ants go back into the colony first. According to a new report published in PLOS ONE, researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Brazil’s Federal University of Vicosa studied the ants and found that the fungus couldn’t grow inside the nests because the nests were too clean. Instead, they force the zombie ants to die at the entrance of the colony. Study co-author David Hughes describes what happens:
What the zombie fungi essentially do is create a sniper’s alley through which their future hosts must pass. The parasite doesn’t need to evolve mechanisms to overcome the effective social immunity that occurs inside the nest. At the same time, it ensures a constant supply of susceptible hosts.
Fear not, ant fans and anteaters (both animal and human), the researchers determined that the zombie fungus is more of a chronic condition and not a fatal epidemic for carpenter ants.
It still sounds like a great movie plot.