Hollywood loves zombies; zombies of all shapes, sizes, speeds, and origin stories. The idea of a deadly virus that takes over people’s minds turning them into flesh-eating monsters is terrifying, but thankfully pure fiction. Perhaps the closest thing found in humans, the rabies virus, can be prevented with a vaccine and has been almost completely eliminated in the US. However, there is something that can turn ants into a zombie, and it’s not a virus.
It’s actually a fungus called Ophiocordyceps, and for an ant it’s truly the stuff of horror movies. One spore of this fungus is enough to force an ant to climb up a tree and bite down so hard that it can no longer open its mouth. Now with the ant held in place by its own jaw, the fungus erupts out of the ant’s head and rains down spores on the ants below. Ummm yikes! But scientists were puzzled by how the fungus was capable of doing this? How could it force the ant to bite down with such force it broke its own jaw?
To find out, they put infected ants under an electron microscope, and studied what the spore did to the ant’s body. When a spore landed on an ant, it began eating through its exoskeleton (a hard outer shell) until it reached the ant’s innards. From there it sent out long tubes that infiltrated the ant’s muscular system, and headed straight for the jaw muscles. These tubes seemed to destroy the outside protective sheath around the muscle fibers, while leaving their ability to communicate with the brain intact. Then when the ant reached a certain location and tried to take a bite, the fungus secreted a chemical that caused the jaw muscles to contact into a death grip so strong that it permanently damaged the ant’s jaw. The discovery that this manipulative fungus had evolved a way to control the ant’s muscles while leaving their brain unharmed was pretty surprising.
I am very happy to report that this fungus can not harm humans, but I am a little bummed that no one has made a cross over between A Bug’s Life and Day of the Dead.
Want to learn more? Visit https://www.wired.com/story/now-we-know-how-the-zombie-ant-gets-its-bite/?verso=true
July 19, 2019