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Meet the Zombie Fungus that Mind-Controls Insects

ants

Have you ever come across a National Geographic article that you could hardly believe? I was shocked when I saw the images of a parasite fungus being able to control other insects. Welcome to the Zombie Fungus that Mind Controls Insects.

Its name is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or “Zombie-Ant Fungus.” Let’s explore how the fungus can control insects against their will.

Key Points:

  • A famous article from National Geographic features a parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, also known as “Zombie-Ant Fungus,” which can control insects.
  • The parasitic fungus infects ants by consuming through their exoskeleton and infiltrating their brain, leading the ants to lose control over their bodies.
  • The life cycle of the fungus involves infecting an ant, consuming its non-vital soft tissues, modifying the ant’s behavior, leading it to a location favorable for the fungus’s growth, and eventually killing the ant to release its spores.
fungus controls ants
Katja Schulz / Flickr

Get to know The Zombie Fungus

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The “zombie-ant” fungus refers to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, a parasitic fungus known for its mind-controlling capabilities over ants. The name “zombie-ant” comes from this fungus’s strange and fascinating lifecycle.

The specific fungus primarily resides in tropical forest ecosystems. It has been discovered in various locations worldwide, including Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

fire ants

These regions provide the optimal temperature and humidity for the fungus to thrive. It uses specific insects within these regions as hosts to complete its lifecycle.

How can the Fungus Control other Insects

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a parasitic fungus that generally infects ants. The parasite consumes its way through the insects’ exoskeleton and infiltrates their brain. Subsequently, the fungus dictates their behavior. While infected insects remain alive, they no longer control their bodies.

Here’s how the fungus creates the Zombie Ants:

  1. Spores of the fungus infect an ant, usually a species from the Camponotini tribe, by landing on its body and using enzymes to break down the ant’s exoskeleton, allowing the fungus to infiltrate the host.
  2. Once inside the ant, the fungus begins to consume non-vital soft tissues and affects the ant’s behavior by releasing chemicals that interfere with the ant’s central nervous system.
  3. The infected ant then leaves its colony and climbs up vegetation, driven by the fungus to find a location with the ideal temperature and humidity for the fungus to grow. The ant clamps onto a leaf vein or twig with its mandibles in a “death grip”.
  4. After the ant’s death, the fungus continues to grow inside it. It eventually ruptures out of the ant’s head and releases its spores, which can infect other ants and continue the cycle.

This fascinating and gruesome interaction between ant and fungus is an example of a broader class of manipulative, parasitic relationships in nature, it shows the beauty and efficiency of nature at the same time.

Similar Behavior in Other Animals

ants

There are other animals where you can see a similar behavior as with the fungus and ants. Do you like to read more about insects? Then enjoy our variety of insect articles.

The behavior-altering parasitic interactions, not just limited to ants and the Ophiocordyceps fungus, are found in a few other examples:

#1 Grasshoppers/Crickets and Hairworms

YouTube video

The hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii), a parasite, is known to modify the behavior of its hosts, primarily grasshoppers and crickets.

When the worm reaches its mature stage, it coerces its host to jump into water, allowing the worm to leave the host and complete its lifecycle in a water-based environment.

#2 Rodents and Toxoplasma gondii

Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite, requires a cat’s stomach for reproduction. When it infects a mouse or rat, it alters the rodent’s brain so that the rodent becomes less fearful of cats, and even attracted to the scent of cat urine.

This makes the rodent an easier catch for the cat, thereby enabling the parasite’s life cycle completion.

#3 Ants and Lancet Liver Fluke

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The Lancet Liver Fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum) is a parasitic worm that manipulates ants into climbing atop a blade of grass during evening or nighttime clamping onto it with their jaws.

This behavior significantly increases the likelihood of the ant being consumed by a grazing animal, providing the fluke an environment (the animal’s liver) to reproduce.

#4 Spiders and Parasitic Wasps

Certain species of parasitic wasps are known to deposit their eggs into spiders. The emerging larvae gain control over the spider’s brain, forcing it to weave a web that is ideal for the wasp larvae, but not beneficial for the spider.

Upon completion of the web, the larvae kill and consume the spider, and then undergo pupation in the specially constructed web.

Summary of the Zombie Fungus

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The fungus may seem like a purely destructive force, but it also plays several roles that can benefit its environment and science, like Biodiversity and Population Control or Nutrient Recycling.

Even for Scientific Research, it can be interesting. The complex interactions between the fungus and its ant hosts have provided valuable insights for scientists. This might also help in Potential Medicinal Uses or Biological Age Control.

We hope you liked reading about the Zombie Fungus that Mind Controls Insects. Also have a look at Early Signs Of Bed Bugs or All You Need To Know About Bed Bug Bites.

Don’t forget to share this with your friends and family and show them what the Zombie Fungus can do.

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