Can a simple fungus dominate an animal species? According to experts, it can. Some fungi can easily turn their hosts into practical zombies.
Ophiocordyceps Unilteralis is a parasitic fungus which relies on ants for its reproductive cycle. Mycologists, who study fungi, call it an entopathological species.
Once infecting an ant, the fungi influences its host’s behavior, only to kill it days later. It causes the ant to move mindlessly and abandon its tasks like a zombie to seek higher ground. There, the breeze will help to spread the fungus’s spores for a new generation of zombie-makers.
When the infected ant has climbed to a sufficient height, it will clamp its mandibles down on vegetation and die, only to have fungal sporangia burst from its body and Ophiocordyceps Unilteralis’s life cycle begins again.
Yet, despite its ability to affect ant behavior, researchers say it doesn’t occupy the ant brain.
Fox News reports:
A new fungus, known as Ophiocordyceps unilteralis, has been turning ants into actual zombies, causing them to walk mindlessly, eat vegetation and hang from the edges of leaves and twigs. If that wasn’t enough, the fungus takes over the ant’s body, except for the brain, researchers say.
“Fungal cells were found throughout the host body but not in the brain, implying that behavioral control of the animal body by this microbe occurs peripherally,” according to the study, first published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. “Additionally, fungal cells invaded host muscle fibers and joined together to form networks that encircled the muscles. These networks may represent a collective foraging behavior of this parasite, which may, in turn, facilitate host manipulation.”
The paper’s authors originally believed that the fungus alters the brain to change the behavior of the ants, but it effectively invades the muscle fibers of the ant, creating a sort of skeleton inside the ant.
This has some terrifying implications for the ants. It means that the ant’s body is taken over by the fungus which then uses muscle fibers to force the insect to abandon its life with the colony.
An infected ant behaves like a zombie, but it’s really more of a puppet for the fungus, mentally unaffected yet unable to control its own body.
Fox News continues:
“The connections are likened to structures that aid in transporting nutrients and organelles in several plant-associated fungi,” the paper reads. “These findings alter the current view of parasite-extended phenotypes by demonstrating that behavior control does not require the parasite to physically invade the host brain and that parasite cells may coordinate to change host behavior.”
David Hughes, senior author of the work, likened it to “a puppeteer [that] pulls the strings to make a marionette move, the fungus controls the ant’s muscles to manipulate the host’s legs and mandibles.”
After a period of time, the host ant becomes immobilized and the fungus sprouts out of the body and looks for another host to infect – all very reminiscent of zombie movies and TV shows.
This may sound more like the science fiction stuff of popular zombie movies, but it’s nothing for humans to worry about. The fungus is harmless to us mammals.
In fact, these or similar fungi could prove useful to humans. The mycologist Paul Stamets suggests that entopathological fungi morphed into “a nonsporulating form” that ants are attracted to can be used as an effective pesticide against household termites and carpenter ants.
At a recent TedTalks lecture, Stamets said entopathological fungi “could totally revamp the pesticide industries throughout the world.”