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12 March 2011 / Liz Johns

Not A Fungi To Be With . . . If You’re An Ant


Forget the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, there’s a horror story going on right now, beneath our feet, directed by Nature. You may have already read about it, but it’s so fascinating in its grisliness that I couldn’t let the story slip by without posting it.

Let Me Tell You A Horror Story

In the tropical rainforests around the world, there is a species of carpenter ant called the Camponotus leonardi that lives up in the trees. Unfortunately for them, there is also a fungus in the same environment, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that releases spores which infect these unsuspecting ants. It’s not yet know what chemicals are released into the ants from these spores, but what is known is the bizarre and gruesome effect it has on them. The chemicals infect the ant’s brain and take control, leaving the ant in a zombie-like state. The ant, under the control of the fungus, then leaves its colony (something that it would otherwise never do), moves to a particular location on a particular leaf, locks down on the leaf with its jaws and remains there until the fungus kills it. The next scene in this horror story is where the fungus, now living in the ant, produces a long stalk that grows from the ant’s head that shoots out spores in order to infect other passing ants.

Why Is The Fungus Doing This?

Most actions that creatures and plants do in nature are for the preservation and extension of their species. This fungus is no exception. What is it trying (and succeeding) to do is to reach the optimum location for it to live in by hijacking ants as transport and directing them to carry it to a chosen destination. A form of adaptive parasite manipulation. The remarkable thing is that the fungus direct the ants to very specific locations (to a leaf on the north side of a plant, 25cm above ground, that’s in 95% humidity and 20-30 °C). Scientists studying this found that all of the zombified ants were ‘taken’ to this perfect, fungal environment.

Ant Lion Portrait by Buddy Venturanza

Other Not-So-Fun Guys

The actions of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis described here are not unique. There are three other identified fungi that take over ants in a similar way. Two of these produce stalks from the ant’s feet and knee joints, as well as from the head. You may be pleased to hear (after this post has undoubtedly ellicted some sympathy for ants) that one of these fungi, the O. camponoti-novogranadensis, lives in an area that is becoming much drier and hotter -an environment that the fungus can’t survive in and that could well mark its demise. Not too much sympathy there, I suspect.

Poor ants!

Thanks to Buddy Venturanza for the incredible close-up photo of the ant. The wonder of microscopic nature. Check out his other great photographs here.

And if you just can’t get enough of ants, take a look at these photographs here and marvel at their beauty.

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7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. julie helms / Mar 13 2011 5:29 am

    This article gave me the willies just reading it!

    Like

  2. lifewith4cats / Mar 13 2011 8:12 am

    Wow, this just blows my mind! The stalk picture is gruesome. I wonder if this fungus is a new thing or if its always been around.

    Like

    • Liz Johns / Mar 13 2011 10:02 am

      According to the New Scientist report, ‘the original zombie-ant fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, was first identified in 1865, and it seems to exist around the world’. So they’ve been with us (or with the ants I should say) for quite a while.

      Like

  3. lifewith4cats / Mar 14 2011 8:18 am

    a few days ago I posted a topic called Love – the universal language. In the comment thread that developed we ended up talking about inteligence in animals. I remembered your sheep post froma long time ago so I mentioned it. But It was so long ago… You are more than welcome to visit that post and give us all a proper link directly to that post of yours. Hope to see you there?

    Like

  4. Cymbria / Jun 28 2011 6:00 am

    Ewwww! Thank goodness it doesn’t tap into human hosts! Er… or does it? There are quite a few zombies wandering around the office this morning. Fungi? Or just Monday? All I know is that I’m now going to very suspicious of people wearing hats lol.

    Like

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  1. (Procrastinare) Dintre chestiile interesante de pe net cu care am pierdut timp în loc să repet pentru examenul de permis auto | Zoldike's Blog

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