Image: David Hughes / Penn State / Flickr

I Want to Be a Zombie Ant

How a fungus can turn an insect into a new creature bent to its own will. /

Weep not for the carpenter ant. Well, I don’t suppose you would. They eat our food, intrude on our picnics, and moderately disrupt our comfortable lives.

Granted, they work with unity and symmetry as if they have a well-formulated plan. They have organizational and architectural skills that are examples for both industry and technology. And thousands will work as if for one purpose or goal. But forget about that for a moment. It’s better for this article if you think about how annoying they are.

Because this isn’t an article about how amazing carpenter ants are. It’s an article about how amazing the Ophiocordyceps fungi is. And it’s a fungal parasite. The ant is simply its slave, once it successfully infects the insect. The parasite has the power to control the mind of its host ant, turning it into a zombie.

Yes, that’s really the term journals are using.

Once the parasite latches onto the antenna of the carpenter ant, it releases a chemical that is able to manipulate behavior and control.

“Infected ants behave as zombies and display predictable stereotypical behaviors of random rather than directional walking,” Penn State entomologist David Hughes explained in a 2011 journal article. Through chemical manipulation of the ant’s brain, the fungus makes it leave the colony’s nest in the dry, hot, tree canopy, where things are best for the ant. It leads the ant to the underbrush nearer the ground, where it is humid and life is best for the parasite. That random, bumbling walk is not random for the fungus: it keeps the ant from being able to climb back to the canopy.

The fungus keeps the ant wandering about 10 inches above the forest floor—and then, ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 35 / November 12, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 35: Fractals, zombie ants, and a dashing evangelist-monk. /

  2. Why Fractals Are So Beautiful

    We’re finding infinitely complex, self-similar shapes all over creation. And we’re just getting started. /

  3. The Handsome, Pun-Loving Missionary Who Teased Popes

    Columbanus died 1,400 years ago this month, having re-evangelized Western Europe. /

  4. Big Cottonwood Canyon

    “Resurrection must be like this” /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 35: Links to amazing stuff.

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