An ant infected with a parasitic fungi stumbles around with no control of her own behavior. She climbs up to a narrow branch, the fungi throughout her muscles controlling every move, and with her last action clings to the branch and clamps down her jaws. Soon after death a mushroom burst out the back of her head, grows to a length longer than her own body, then rains down spores on to her sisters foraging on the forest floor below.
This is a zombie ant, a real-life horror story that we documented first hand. Hamilton Boyce and I met up with some researchers at University of Central Florida that study carpenter ants and the Ophiocordyceps fungi that infect them and manipulate their behavior to facilitate their own reproduction.
Our video covers the basic science of zombie ants, how the diabolical infection and manipulation happens and how the researchers are studying it. We pulled together interviews with researchers in the lab and the field to understand the biology of the carpenters and fungal parasites. Hamilton and I both made spooky original music for this episode, and Amy Huber contributed many great illustrations.
This project has been many years in the making so we are very excited to share it with you. There were many topics and tidbits that didn’t make it into the video. We also recorded a podcast where we talk a bit about making the video and also some science that didn’t fit into the video, like zombie ant graveyards, Tibetan caterpillar fungus that support a multi-billion dollar industry, and how the zombie ant fungi somehow manipulate ant behavior without getting into the brain.
References and further reading
- How the Zombie Fungus Takes Over Ants’ Bodies to Control Their Minds
- Zombie Fungus Enslaves Only Its Favorite Ant Brains
- ‘Zombie Ant’ Brains Left Intact by Fungal Parasite
- Science Behind the Fiction: The Many Ways We’ve All Been Body Snatched
- Ancient Death-Grip Leaf Scars Reveal Ant–Fungal Parasitism
- Meet the Parasites That Control Human Brains
- The World’s Most Valuable Parasite Is in Trouble
- Evidence for Convergent Evolution of Host Parasitic Manipulation in Response to Environmental Conditions
- Ophiocordyceps–Ant Interactions as an Integrative Model to Understand the Molecular Basis of Parasitic Behavioral Manipulation
- Genetic Underpinnings of Host Manipulation by Ophiocordyceps as Revealed by Comparative Transcriptomics
- Species-Specific Ant Brain Manipulation by a Specialized Fungal Parasite