By John Mcdonnell
A parasitic fungus has the ability to take over the mind and body of an ant before leading it to its final resting place at the most opportune time, an astonishing study has revealed.
The fungus, a species of Ophiocordyceps, was found living in carpenter ants in Thailand’s rain forest, controlling their nervous system so they became a vessel with one purpose: helping the fungus reproduce.
As the fungus spreads through the ant’s body it begins to act irregularly before it eventually dies with its jaws clamped around the vein of a leaf in a place perfect for the parasite to thrive, it was found.
A dead carpenter ant, with fungus sprouting from its head. A parasitic fungus, a species of Ophiocordyceps, has the ability to take over the mind and body of the ant before leading it to its final resting place
A dead ant clamped to the vein on the underside of a leaf. Researchers witnessed a total of 16 infected ants leave their colony and bite into a leaf near the jungle floor before dying, all at a time very close to midday
Researchers witnessed a total of 16 infected ants leave their colony and bite into the underside of a leaf before dying – all at a time very close to midday.
‘Synchronised arrival of zombie ants at the graveyards is a remarkable phenomenon. It adds a layer of complexity on what is already an impressive feat,’ David Hughes, a study researcher from Pennsylvania State University, told LiveScience.com.
‘However, although ants bite at noon they don’t in fact die until sunset. Likely this strategy ensures (the fungus) has a long cool night ahead of it during which time it can literally burst out of the ant’s head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk.’
By dissecting infected ants, it was discovered that when they took their final living act – biting down into the vein of a leaf – their head was filled with fungal cells, which appeared to affect the motion of the jaw so the mouth could not be opened again.
It was found that a few days after the ants ingest the fungus they become zombie-like, no longer following trails and interacting with other ants, and instead wandering aimlessly until they fall out of the forest canopy.
They then wander just above the jungle floor until a perfect place for fungus reproduction is found.
It is much cooler and moister at this level than high up in trees, making it much easier for fungus to thrive.
The fungus eventually sprouts out of the dead ant’s head, allowing fungal spores to easily be picked up by other ants, and starting a whole new cycle.