Bullet Ant
Photo by Joaquin Garcia

Parasitic Fungus Turns Ants into “Zombies”

Parasitic Fungus Turns Ants into “Zombies”

Oct 6, 2017|Natural History| by Savanna Kearney

Like something straight out of a Halloween horror flick, four new species of fungi have been discovered that control carpenter ants’ brains to turn them into mindless “zombies” before killing them. The first zombie-ant fungus was discovered in 1865, and scientists believe that hundreds more within the species will likely be identified.

After infecting an ant, the fungus released a concoction of thousands of chemicals to wield control over the ant’s central nervous system, and thus, its actions and behavior. The fungus then directs the ant to go against its instincts and leave the colony, bite down onto the underside of a leaf, and stay there for hours, before the fungus eventually kills it. The leaf onto which the ant attaches itself is located in the ideal place for the fungus to grow and spread. After the ant dies, the fungus continues to grow, converting the ant’s organs into sugars to increase growth, but leaving the muscles intact to ensure the ant maintains its grip on the leaf. Finally, a long white stalk of fungus sprouts from the dead ant and shoots off spores that fall to the ground, infecting the ants it lands on.

And if that’s not eerie enough, the fungus can actually recognize different brains of different ant species and targets its host accordingly. The microorganism even discharges a unique mixture of chemicals for each brain it manipulates, suggesting it “knows” the mind it’s invading. The fungus cannot survive without ants to complete their life cycle.

Even if you’re not worried about actual zombies this Halloween, be sure to keep an eye out for zombie ants. You never know who could be infected next!