As If Bugs Were Not Creepy Enough!
The living dead creeping through the night is sure to give anyone a scare. Zombies are at the center of many horror stories, but they aren’t just fictional characters. Well, at least not in the world of ants. There’s a fungus in the world that can quickly take control of an ant’s body. Check out how ants become the monster from our nightmares.
Dead Ant Walking
Though called zombies, these ants aren’t going to come in search of brains anytime soon. The term zombie ant refers to an ant who has been inhabited by the ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus. These ants lose control of their bodies as the fungus grows inside of them. When an ant becomes infected, the fungus will force it to leave its colony in search of a spot that is more suitable to the needs of the fungus. This is typically a humid spot and must have vegetation. The ant will then position itself on a plant, roughly 10 inches off the ground. Once it has found the perfect spot, the ant chomps down on a leaf and remains attached to it. The fungus waits for the ant to die before releasing a spore-covered structure from the body of the ant. The cycle continues every time a new victim falls into its trap. Caution: It isn't a pretty sight.
The ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus definitely knows how to creep us out. So, how does this parasitic fungus work? It all starts with the initial infection. When an ant stumbles upon the spores of the fungus, it attaches to the exoskeleton before seeping inside. Once it has penetrated the ant’s body, individual cells enter the bloodstream. Over the course of the weeklong takeover, these cells multiply and unite by communicating and sharing nutrients with one another. Eventually, they begin to act as one cell. They are then able to take control of the ant’s muscles. Though brain eating would make sense, the fungus never physically touches the brain. It’s believed that the fungus releases bioactive compounds, which disrupt the ant’s nervous system. This results in the mind-controlling capabilities of the fungus. When the ant has been relocated, the fungus consumes the innards of the ant.
Only some ants have to worry about a zombie invasion. The ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus is known to attack only a few carpenter ant species including the Camponotus castaneus. These reddish-brown carpenter ants live in tropical forests. Instead of targeting an entire ant colony, the fungus waits outside of the nest for an ant to run into one of their spores. Though it only attacks one ant at a time, the spores released from each victim create a domino effect and more ants are infected. Surprisingly, the colony is oblivious to the ant’s infection. Typically, colonies are able to sense when an ant is sick and will make sure it’s kept away from the colony to ensure that the disease doesn’t spread. However, the ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus manages to sneak under the radar. Ants have been seen carrying on as usual with an infected colony member.
One zombie-creating fungus is bad, but multiple fungi could cause nightmares. The ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus is actually only one of many fungi with the ability to create zombie bugs. The ophiocordyceps sinensis is a parasitic fungus that attacks ghost moth caterpillars. There’s also a fungus known as entomophthora that attacks flies. These fungi cause reactions similar to those produced by the ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus. The bugs infected are forced to follow the fungi’s orders before settling into a final resting position.
Zombie ants make picnic crashers look like our new friends. Though you probably won’t cross paths with one of these undead ants, the whole thing is a little unsettling. Were you creeped out by these zombie ants? Let us know in the comments below!