Zombie Fungus Makes ‘Sniper’s Alley’ Around Ant Colonies

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By Megan Gannon

 

A fungus that turns worker ants into zombie henchmen has a surprisingly clever strategy to recruit new hosts.

The parasite doesn’t attack the nest directly. Rather, the fungus leads ants to their deaths along the outskirts of the colony, creating a “sniper’s alley” where the corpses can discreetly spread deadly fungal spores, new research shows.

The parasitic fungus in question,Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis, is named for the species of carpenter ant that it inhabits, Camponotus rufipes. Under the influence of the fungus, a zombie carpenter ant is led away from its home and forced to climb plants in the understory of the rainforest canopy. After the ant latches onto the underside of a leaf and dies, the fungus sprouts a long stalk from the ant’s cadaver with spores that rain down on the forest floor and infect new ants from the colony that are out on foraging trips.

It’s easier for the fungus to attack outside the colony, because ants are social animals and band together to limit the spread of a disease. In the new study, published yesterday (Aug. 18) in the journal PLOS ONE, scientists working at a research station in Brazil put infected ant corpses inside of several nests. They found that the fungus stalk was not able to grow properly on any of the ant corpses. What’s more, healthy ants removed most of corpses from the nests after several days.

4 COMMENTS

  1. But of course, this zombie fungus is 100% natural, and its zombification powers must have helped it to survive and adapt, otherwise the fungus (and the zombification powers) wouldn’t be here. That’s a twofer. That means it’s definitely a good thing, right? Right?

    (Yes, that’s sarcasm. It’s for all those readers who try to make the same argument for religion: that it’s a good thing or a necessary thing because it’s universal and it probably evolved to help us survive, the implication usually being that atheists should therefore shut up about it.)

    Back to the article, I’m not surprised the fungus adopts a clever strategy for spore dispersal. I’ve long since stopped being surprised at the clever and ingenious strategies used by plants, fungi, and immobile animals to solve such problems of survival and reproduction. If ever one of them figures out how to hack into human brains, I predict a long and gruelling battle in the field of medicine, because it’ll probably be one sly son of a gun.

    Granted, the only species I know of are other fungi that take over other insect species, infectious worms that control snails, and I think something that made mice greater risk-takers around cats, though I can’t remember what the latter species was. That last one, I think, also had a similar effect on an infected human (making them bold risk-takers), but I don’t remember the details, and I doubt the species has genuinely crossed over.

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