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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Dear Flamingos,

A lifetime achievement award for the legendary birds.

Dearest Flamingos,

You’re so good at what you do. Ya know, Flamingo-ing, and I feel like we all need to take a moment to appreciate you. Think of this as your lifetime achievement award that you’ll never see because of your one flaw. You can’t read. It’s okay though, I’m always told it’s the thought that counts.

First of all, your aesthetic is on point. Your Instagram theme would obviously be pink with tropical backdrops and honestly just name a more iconic duo.

When you touch beaks with a friend or a mate (I don’t want to assume anything about your love lives), it forms a perfect heart. I just think that’s so special.

You’re the original yoga master, achieving infinite balance in your life. I wish I could balance my classes, social life, and make time for self-care just how you manage to balance.

I wish I too, could eat enough shrimp to turn bright pink.

Your baby flamingos look Fashion Week ready. Especially if the category is fluffy and adorable.

For some reason, one of you legends strutted around in little booties and I just really support that flamingo. Sometimes you have to strut your custom-made booties and make all the heads turn.

You guys are squad goals. What's your squad called? Flamboyance. That's actually the best thing I've ever heard. You’re so in sync, but like, I’m sure you think for yourself too and don’t get so caught up in that group mind thing. Or is there a flamingo cult? Is this a sensitive topic? Okay, I’ll shut up.

What I thought were your knees have been your ankles this whole time. Why did no one tell me? This changes everything!

Overall, you're just incredibly interesting. Thank you for existing, though I know somehow evolution made you possible (we won't go into that here, because I don't want to think about science). You keep strutting in your flamboyance (squad name goals) and continue to make the world proud.


Someone Who Just Spent Three Hours Watching Flamingo Videos.

Cover Image Credit: Pexels

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I Am A Human First, Journalist Second

Journalists are often faced with whether to tell a story or become a part of it.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I recently saw a reactionary article posted by National Geographic. It was in response to a video posted in early December of last year chronicling a starving polar bear searching for food on iceless land. Amid much public outcries of dismay, the recently published article recounted what the photojournalists would've done differently, looking back now. That begged the question of the role that photojournalists play in telling a story. Or, rather, their roles in changing the ending of a story.

For this piece, I was originally going to compare several photographs including The Terror of War, The Face of AIDS, and Alan Kurdi. These photos gripped the world in their intensity, poignancy, and raw, unadulterated emotion. That being said, however, they all differed from the video of the starving polar bear. These photographs documented horrific, heart-wrenching moments over which the photographer had no control. They could not prevent the napalm burns on an unclothed child, nor could they stop the progression of a then fatal disease, or resuscitate a drowned infant. The world spins onward. Journalists do not pick up the broken pieces and rarely can prevent the fractures of a shattering world around them. Rather, they document the messes that have been made.

However, there is one photograph known the world over that can be appropriately compared to the video of the emaciated polar bear. It is a textbook example of ethicality in photojournalism and the responsibility that befalls any person who documents some of the most horrific moments of an individual's life. Shown below, the image is entitled "Starving Child and Vulture."

Captured in 1993 by photographer Kevin Carter, the image depicts a Sudanese child who had collapsed on his way to a feeding center, with a plump vulture lingering nearby. Carter and a band of photographers, collectively known as the Bang-Bang Club, had all been tasked with documenting apartheid in South Africa and instructed not to touch any of the victims because of disease. So, instead of helping the slumped toddler, Carter waited for 20 minutes in hopes of capturing a better shot before chasing the vulture away. He then reportedly watched the child walk away, smoked a cigarette, wept, and prayed.

The New York Times ran the photograph, which won Carter a Pulitzer. Amid criticisms at his selfishness in not lending aid to the child, Carter died by suicide in 1994. In his suicide note, he wrote, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain.”

In Journalism 1001 at the University of Minnesota, it is drilled into the heads of aspiring journalists to be objective when possible: we are to tell the story, not become a part of it. But, complete objectivity is an unachievable ambition. It is of the utmost importance for consumers of media to realize that journalists are not superheroes -- capes often get in the way of the cameras and equipment that photojournalists require. We are storytellers, not knights in shining armor. Unfortunately, not every story can have a happy ending. The videographers who captured the starved polar bear had no food to lend; and any food they did have would have only prolonged the horrid inevitability of fate. We must not hold photojournalists to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Humans are only humans, and, as such, will make mistakes and regret inaction. It is a sad inevitability of life. In a world of black and white, where one color represents goodness and the other evil, we are destined to experience every hue of grey.

That being said, however, we are humans first and journalists second. One of the pinnacles of Journalism Ethics, as pointed out by the SPJ, is to minimize harm. That means that we feed the child in front of us. We hug those in need of a friendly gesture. We show humanity, the kind our photographs can often look devoid of. There is no narrative on this planet free of bias; that being said, let that bias be one of love and compassion for all that inhabit our world. When we look back in retrospect, we want it to be a fond memory, not a stinging regret. To tell a story is an act of valor, but to intervene is an act of heart. We must realize that a picture is worth a thousand words, but an act of kindness is worth ten thousand more.

Cover Image Credit: Nat Geo

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