The Fungus That Turns Ants into Zombies

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One of the most popular shows on TV right now is The Walking Dead. The program, which was originally based off a comic book of the same name, has even spawned another series, Fear the Walking Dead.

People can’t seem to get enough of zombies. Fortunately, there aren’t any to contend with in real life, right?

Well, actually…

It turns out there is a very unique type of fungus called Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis. As a parasitic fungus, it needs to attack other creatures in order to live. Specifically, it seems it likes to pick on a certain type of ant.

Any other species of ant or animal can pass by it unmolested. However, when the carpenter ant gets too close, Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis attacks using its powerful mind-controlling chemical.

Once the ant has been infected, the chemical cocktail goes through its entire body. When it hits the nervous system, though, that’s when the ant is no longer in control of itself.

The fungus is now the one giving orders, and this is where it somehow gets even creepier.

After the toxin has taken hold, an infected ant will climb up some vegetation it can find and then use its mighty pincers to clamp down. Then the fungus kills its unlucky drone. It should be pointed out that the fungus is incredibly specific about the plant it demands its host to climb. It has to be the perfect temperature and humidity because apparently, this mind-controlling fungus is extremely picky about where it stays.

Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis is far from done, though. It wants to infect as many ants as possible, so with its victim now paralyzed on top of some vegetation, a long stalk begins growing out of the back of its head.

This stalk is outfitted to release spores that will fall below and, even then this terrorizing fungus has its way, infecting even more ants.

While Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis seems to go for carpenter ants, there are other versions of the fungus that prefer different kinds. The current theory is that these fungi may have evolved alongside potential hosts.

Interestingly, though, research has also shown that Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis can actually sense what type of brain an ant has and therefore assume its species. Then, it’s just a matter of whipping up the right mind-controlling chemical to assume control of it.

As for the ant in this hypothetical, it would die. The spores it helped release would trickle down and infect its fellow ants and the whole grisly ordeal would begin over again.

 


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