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Attack of the Zombie Ants!

Some time ago I read a trend about something called “zombie ants”. Subsequently, my zombie obsession got the best of me. What was such a thing? Was it the plot of some upcoming sci-fi flick? What I discovered was that this is a fascinating, and gruesome, part of nature. Recently David P. Hughes, an assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State, published his findings on the phenomenon known as “zombie ants”.

Hughes and his team conducted their research in a Thai rain forest. They found that when a species of carpenter ants, known as Camponotus leonardi, come in contact with fungi, a species of Ophiocordycepsthey, they become infected with a parasite that alters their behavior. The ants, which live in the canopies of trees, “drunkenly” wander across the lower leaves of the forest. From there the ants proceed to clamp down on the main vein on the underside of a leaf. The mandibles of the ant become detached and a type of “lock jaw” occurs where the ant can’t release the leaf, even after death. This occurs at about solar noon, when the sun is strongest, which could mean that the fungus is synchronized with the sun. However, the infected ant doesn’t die until after sunset. Days later the fungus grows through the ant’s head and releases spores. These spores are picked up be other ants and the process continues.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEXuSdTYIoM[/youtube]

By using transmission-electron and light microscopes to explore inside the ants, and observing 42 infected ants overall, the researchers were able to determine that the fungus “fills the ant’s body and head, causing muscles to atrophy and forcing muscle fibres to spread apart”. Hughes’ conclusion is that “the fungus attacks the ants on two fronts: first by using the ant as a walking food source, and second by damaging muscle and the ant’s central nervous system”.

What’s even more interesting is that the behavior of other arthropods (which are animals with segmented bodies, have six or more jointed legs and make up 3 out of every 4 animals on Earth) and insects in general, have been altered by fungi and parasites in other research. These include the suicidal pillbug and zombie versions of caterpillars, snails and cockroaches. But bugs aren’t the only species that can have their minds altered by parasites. Crabs can become tricked into carrying, and then caring for, a parasite called Sacculina. Closer to home for us humans is Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite commonly hosted by cats. Toxoplasma gondii can infect any mammal, including humans (in fact, it’s been reported that half of the human population are already infected). Because some 3 million people are infected, Dr. E. Fuller Torrey conducted an experiment that has apparently linked Toxoplasma gondii to schizophrenia.

Before you throw Whiskers out to the curb, there’s medicine to eliminate Toxoplasma gondii, so no need to lose any sleep over that. And, most insects that can contract a parasite reside in tropical climates, like in the rain forests of South America or Asia, so again, no need to worry yourself about that (except these types of zombie ants).

What’s truly horrifying, however, is what Hughes wants to do with his “zombie ant” research. He would like to explore how the fungus could be used as a pesticide in farms and homes. As a person obsessed with anything to do with zombies, I can simply state that they could end very, very badly for the human race. We should all know by now that there are somethings you do not want to foul around with that occur in nature. I would definitely consider a mind-controlling parasite one of these things.

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