The Zombifying Fungus

You don’t need to look at science fiction for the most horrific manifestations of mind control. You can instead find it on a leaf that hangs around 25 cm above the floor of Brazil’s forests.

This unfortunate Carpenter Ant contracts an infection from spores released by the parasitic Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus. The spores stick to the ant, germinate, and spread throughout the host’s body by means of long tendrils known as mycelia. The ant is forced to climb to the top of the closest plant and close its small jaws around a leaf or twig in a death grip. This is due to the cordyceps’ ability to turn its host into a zombie slave. After spreading throughout the insect’s body, starving it of nourishment and taking control of its mind and body, the fungus compels the ant to leave its nest. It forces ant to climb a neighbouring plant stem over a week.

Ant killed by Ophiocordyceps fungus | Katja Schulz/Flickr

At a height of 25 cm, where the humidity and temperature are just right for the fungus to develop, the ant’s mandibles permanently lock around the leaf and stop. At some point, it pushes a long stalk through the ant’s head, which develops into a bulbous capsule that contains spores. Since the ant usually climbs a leaf that hangs above the foraging routes in its colony, the fungus spores fall on the other ants below, turning them into zombies.

More than 400 different Cordyceps species have been identified. Each species preys on a specific type of insect, such as ants, aphids, beetles, cockroaches, or dragonflies.

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