The Fungus That Makes The Dead Alive Again: Zombie Ant Fungi

The Fungus That Makes The Dead Alive Again: Zombie Ant Fungi

This fungus is simultaneously the coolest and creepiest thing I've ever learned about.

You are an ant, deep in the tropical forests of South America. You’re just minding your own business, doing your daily foraging like every other worker ant, when you pass under a leaf. You pause. Something seems… amiss. You can’t sense any immediate danger, though, so you continue on your merry way.

Little did you know, you’ve been infected.

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has gained media attention in recent years because of the flat-out creepy way that it reproduces. It sounds like something out of science-fiction, but it's arguably one of the coolest animals out there. The process of infection starts when a spore lands on the exoskeleton of an unsuspecting ant. The ant is none-the-wiser as the spore drills through its hard shell and makes a home in its body. For the next two days, the fungus grows and replaces much of the ant's innards.

O. unilateralis then induces full-body convulsions that cause the ant to fall to the forest floor. The mind-controlled ant crawls up a leaf stalk about three feet off of the forest floor and then anchors onto the underside of the leaf in a "death grip." The fungus kills the ant and grows a stalk from the back of the corpse's head. When the stalk matures, it releases spores in an attempt to infect more unsuspecting ants foraging on the forest floor below.

Why is O. unilateralis significant? Well, beyond the fact that it's really cool, it acts as a natural population management tool for when jungle carpenter ant populations get too big. It also has medicinal potential, among other things, such as showing promise for anti-tumor, immunity and other health property activities. Also, oddly enough, the zombie fungi produces red and purple pigments under certain conditions, which makes them viable for food coloring.

Some other food for thought is the new type of Ophicordyceps fungus discovered in 2014 by a student from University of Louisiana-Lafayette. This other species displayed similar behavior, targeting only queen ants instead of regular carpenter ants, and thus, it carries more devastating potential to jungle ant colonies.

As a zombie enthusiast and science geek, I personally find this fungus one of the most fascinating things on the planet. A friend of mine, on the other hand, gasped and asked in horror if the fungus could infect humans when I told her about it. I was sorely tempted to say yes, just to mess with her. Post-apocalyptic videogames like "The Last of Us," which features an evolved form of Cordyceps that turns people into zombies, explore the possibility of what would happen if the fungus could spread to humans, however the events of the game are purely fictional. Cross-species transmission is only really applicable to viral and some bacterial diseases, so Ophiocordyceps poses no danger to humans... as of yet.

Cover Image Credit: Flickr / Penn State

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