Zombie Ants! Real-life Fungal Horror!
Good morning my precious littles, today we are going to tell a very scary story about zombie ants! Well, scary for the ants, not so much for us microbes!
To microbes, this is a story of determination and ingenuity - but telling it as a scary story seems to be fun for the giants this time of year!
Every year around this time, the humans try to dress up like monsters and other characters, trying to pretend for a short time to be something else, silly right? Even stranger is that they eat lots of candy, sending their offspring out into the night to beg for candy from strangers - talk about scary!
But gather round, I want to tell you a story about an unfortunate ant, Annie, and how she became a zombie that did the bidding of a microbial host, who used her body and left her in a horrific death grip. This is a story you will not soon forget!
How Annie Became A Zombie Ant
Annie was a Camponotus leonardi ant living in a tropical forest. She was out of the canopy nest, picking up leaves like she did every day. It was a beautiful day and her route was lovely, over limbs with scenic views headed out to get her daily quota of leaves to bring back to the colony. In return, she was given food and shelter, and everything she needed to live a productive life. She was happy and, as happy as a worker ant could be.
Suddenly, she spotted an odd shape below her, so she went to investigate.
Is that a dead ant? What’s that sticking out of his head? Nah, what would that be doing there?
Suddenly, a puff of tiny spores released from a little stem growing out of what appears to be the back of an ant head. Interesting, she thought and moved along. She walked through the smoky cloud, never mind she thought, there are leaves to fetch, food to eat, sleep to have.
A few days later, Annie left the colony for the last time, but she didn’t know it! Annie started to feel a little strange, muscles twitching and she started to have strange feelings about not getting leaves. No, she thought, I must collect the leaves, I must protect the colony! But her will was not strong enough. She was becoming a zombie ant!
Her path strayed from her route, it felt like someone was controlling her. It seemed to be guiding her to someplace different. Her little legs just kept going until she was on the north side of a plant where the humidity hovered around 94 to 95 percent and the temps between 20-30 degrees celsius.
When she mindlessly climbed about 25 centimeters from the ground she felt compelled to find the underside of a leaf and chomp down on the underside of a leaf on a vein. But wait, she didn’t want to, but her mandibles bit down in a death grip and her world turned to black.
‘I thought she’d never get here,
Cory the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis thought!
Sweet! ‘This spot is perfect and I’ve got plenty of food here to start growing and expanding’,
he mused as he consumed the ant from the inside. Over the next few days, his hyphae spread throughout Annie’s still body and Cory felt stronger and stronger.
Yeah, baby, I’m feeling a bit randy,
he thought time to spread my awesome self around! A strange antennae-like growth burst through the back of Annie's unthinking head. Just at that moment, another innocent ant, just minding their own business, headed out to get some leaves, saw a strange shape that emitted a puff. Hmm, that’s strange the ant thought, better get some leaves...
Oh no! Not another ant Ms. Rhyza!
Zombie Ant Facts
You see, “Zombie Ants”, as they are sometimes referred to, are a product of parasitic fungi, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This unique mind-controlling fungus is found mostly in Brazil but can be found throughout tropical environments. Once the fungal spores find their way to the exoskeleton of the ant, they penetrate the body. It proceeds to infiltrate the ant's body, secreting mind-controlling compounds which eventually leads to host manipulation.
Check out this cool video of some zombie ants!
The ants are possessed to leave their home and climb up to an elevated leaf where it clings until it dies. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis then emerges from the corpse usually right behind or through the head. After it punctures from the corpse it must also protect the cadaver from other microbial scavengers. This means these cordyceps need to live a life that is parasitic (preying on the living), saprophytic (preying on the decaying), and necrotrophic (preying on the dead) all at the same time. Now there’s a Zombie story fit for Hollywood Horror! Happy Halloween!
If you'd like more Microbial Monsters and Halloween Horrors check out Professor Xi's class on The Microbe Moment of The Salem Witch Trials or Becky Lafarge's class on the Grim Reaper of microbes: Yersinia pestis