There are several species of ants known as “zombie ants,” one of which is targeted and infected by a parasitoid fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This fungus takes over an ant’s brain and controls its actions so that it does what’s best for the fungus before it eventually kills the ant. “Unlike parasites, like mosquitoes, which benefit by getting food or nutrients from a host without killing it, parasitoids eventually kill the host,” explains Dr. Conrad Labandeira, Curator of fossil arthropods and a researcher at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Here’s what happens. An ant is going about its normal life, when suddenly the parasitoid fungus attacks the ant’s brain and essentially turns that ant into the walking dead. “This type of fungus needs a particular ant as a host to complete its life cycle,” Dr. Labandeira says. “The fungus starts out as airborne spores. When a spore lands on an ant, it lodges itself into its head through an exposed part of the ant’s exoskeleton. The fungus then infiltrates and targets the ant’s brain, taking control of the ant in what’s called ‘zombification.’” Once the fungus takes over the ant’s brain, it makes the ant leave its colony and head for a leaf that provides the ideal conditions for the fungus to grow. The ant crawls under the leaf and goes into a “death grip”—biting down very hard on the major veins of the leaf and eventually hangs attached to the leaf as a carcass. “As the ant clenches to the underside of the leaf, the fungus slowly feeds on it. When the fungus finishes growing, it eventually kills the ant and releases its spores,” Dr. Labandeira says.
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