While the concept of a zombie fungus infecting ants seems like science fiction, it is very real. Even though fungi don’t have brains, an entire genus of them knows how to control insects. How does something that’s brainless control something that has a brain?
There is fossilized evidence showing that zombie fungi have existed for almost 50 million years. It’s not just the mind control that makes this a zombie fungus, though.
As the ant loses control of its body, it staggers around with a jerky motion and meanders in meaningless circles. The movements are similar to what we think of when we imagine human zombies. Let’s discover the zombie fungus infecting ant brains and controlling them now.
What Is a Zombie Fungus?
The zombie-ant fungus is a parasitic species that needs an ant to finish its life cycle. Its true scientific name is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
The spores of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infect an ant which allows for a deadly internal fungal infection. The fungus uses the ant’s own body to position it above the ground.
It then begins using up the nutrients in the ant’s body to sprout a stalk that releases spores into the environment. The stalk, called a stroma, releases spores for about 10 days. The stroma itself survives for weeks and sometimes regenerates if damaged.
What Ants Does a Zombie Fungus Attack?
The zombie-ant fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis attacks carpenter ants. Other ants will come in contact with the spores from this fungus but specific components used in their mind control tricks only work on specific ants.
While Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is fatal to any ant that touches it, it only controls certain ants that it evolved with concurrently. If it parasitizes an ant it isn’t adapted for it will kill the ant without attempting mind control. The zombie ant fungus doesn’t need to eat the spores that infect them as the spores are absorbed when they touch the ant’s body.
How Does a Zombie Fungus Control an Ant?
An ant is infected by a zombie fungus when it comes in contact with spores. The infection quickly spreads through the body and individual fungal cells in the ant’s body begin to connect via tubes. It’s believed this tube-like system is what allows the fungus to animate an ant’s body.
As the fungus takes over the ant it surprisingly doesn’t physically infect the brain’s neural tissue. The spores create specific chemical cocktails based on the particular species of ant they’re infecting.
Zombie fungi take control so they can make the ant march up vegetation. When an appropriate height is reached, the ant clamps onto the vein on the underside of a leaf.
This clamp is so strong that it creates the strongest attachment physically possible. The grip is so strong it causes the muscles in the ant’s mandible to atrophy. The ant dies 6 hours after it chomps down.
This creates a lockjaw that the ant can’t escape which means that it won’t fall off its leaf perch as the fungus takes over. If it falls to the ground, it won’t successfully infect other ants.
A stroma that releases spores grows out of the back of the zombie ant’s head once attached to a leaf. The way these spores infect ants may be similar to intoxication. As the ants are colonized, they may experience a type of high when the chemicals released control their behavior.
What Stops the Zombie Ant Fungus?
In nature, a secondary parasitizing fungus attacks Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and partially sterilizes it. It colonizes the stroma and other outer surfaces of the ant. The new fungus covers the stroma which limits the dispersal of spores.
This parasitization is good for the zombie ant fungus. It regulates the number of spores released into the environment which reduces the number of infected ants. If an entire colony collapses because all ants underneath the stroma become infected, the zombie ant fungus loses its source of hosts.
There are specific insects that know to lay their eggs in an infected ant’s body. They know that a fungal infection develops that will nourish their offspring. Some of these insects use the zombie ant fungus as their only food source.
Where Does the Zombie-Ant Fungus Live?
Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, lives in tropical forests around the world. It occurs in temperate forests as well, but it’s rare. The dead ants infected by the zombie fungus are found on the undersides of leaves around 10 inches off of the ground.
Carpenter ants affected by the zombie-ant fungus can recognize when Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is in their immediate environment. They hone in on the affected ant and move it far away from any live ants before a stroma develops. This is because the zombie-ant fungus will destroy an entire colony if given a chance.
How Many Different Zombie Fungi Are There?
There are around 400 parasitic fungi in the genus Ophiocordyceps. Almost all of them function similarly to the zombie-ant fungus. Each fungus is closely associated with specific insects or other organisms that it takes over and controls.
Hundreds of species of ants, wasps, moths, grasshoppers, and other insects have a zombie fungus of their own. Like the zombie-ant fungus, these various fungi evolved concurrently with their preferred host.
Do Humans Use the Zombie-Ant Fungus?
Yes, humans use the zombie ant fungus. It’s a longstanding ingredient in Chinese medicine. It’s associated with kidney health and the immune system. It has reputed healing properties and it’s taken as a supplement by some.
Is There a Zombie-Human Fungus?
There is no parasitic human zombie fungus. Your immune system is superior to that of ants and it destroys spores before they cause damage.
There are non-zombie fungal diseases that infect humans with compromised immune systems. An example is Valley Fever, which is found in various places around the United States. It is most concentrated in central and southern Arizona.
This disease is inhaled after the soil is disturbed. The resultant disease causes a wide range of symptoms. The infection usually runs its course without causing permanent damage, though antifungals are sometimes needed and complications do occur.
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- Lin, Wei-Jiun, et al., Available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-63400-1
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiocordyceps_unilateralis