First they came for the wild animals … and we did nothing. Now they’re coming for the beetles … and we do nothing. Soon they will be coming for us … shouldn’t we stop them at the beetles? “Them” is zombies. Or more precisely, pathogens that turn living creatures into living dead creatures. The latest is a fungal pathogen turning beetles into zombeetles (trademark probably pending) and Don Steinkraus, professor of entomology in the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, has published a terrifying warning disguised as a paper that delves into the possible purpose of the pathogen, why it prompts strange behavior in living beetles who encounter the zombeetles and why we may not want this fungus to migrate to humans.
Steinkraus’ paper, published in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, focuses on E. lampyridarum, an entomopathogen that alters the behavior of its host, and goldenrod soldier beetles, because they’re common in Arkansas and are fast become zombie-fied by E. lampyridarum … with the help of live beetles. Is this a movie plot yet?
The fungus hides in the pollen of goldenrods (of course), flowering frost aster and other faves of the goldenrod soldier beetles. Besides feeding, the beetles use the flowers to display their sexuality to potential mates – fastening their little beetle legs firmly on the flowers and splaying their ... whatever beetles splay for finding friends for fornication. This movie plot has suddenly taken an X-rated turn.
It gets worse. If a goldenrod soldier beetles is in early stages of zombeetle after being attacked by the pathogen, it attaches to the flower with its jaws instead of its legs and dies in that position, which looks very similar to the splaying-for-fornication-friends position. The dead beetles are ignored by potential mates until about 22 hours later when the zombie-fication is complete. At that point, the dead beetle suddenly comes to life and flaps its wings as the pathopgen fungus grows in its abdomen. This happens before dawn and all zombeetles do it at the same time, says Steinkraus.
"It's kind of like you're sitting in the morgue in the early hours before sunrise, and all of a sudden all the bodies sit up."
NOW we have a movie plot.
Can Don Steinkraus save Arkansas’ beetles from the zombeetles? Can he save humanity?
For the beetles, he’s now researching how the entomopathogen takes control of just the beetle’s jaw in order to clamp it firmly to the flower in both life and death.
For humans, the only solution for now is to avoid sex with zombeetles, no matter how attractively they may splay.