In case you’re dead sacred of zombies, then this fungus is probably your biggest foe. This parasitic fungus turns ants into zombies and this is just a gist of what they actually do. These funguses called Ophiocordyceps unilteralis makes it host behave in a peculiar manner, including clamping down on vegetation and hanging from the edges of leaves and twigs. You must be thinking that the fungus eats up the ants brain, but the truth is even more bizarre!
The new work, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists, studied the effect of fungal infection in the host ant’s body in an elaborate way. The fungus takes complete control of ant’s body, spreading its cells to its abdomen and legs as well as the head.
The fungus forces the ant to behave the way it want. “Fungal cells were found throughout the host body but not in the brain, implying that behavioral control of the animal body by this microbe occurs peripherally,” the paper explains. “Additionally, fungal cells invaded host muscle fibers and joined together to form networks that encircled the muscles. These networks may represent a collective foraging behavior of this parasite, which may in turn facilitate host manipulation.”
“In essence, these manipulated animals were a fungus in ants’ clothing,” David Hughes, senior author of the work, says. “Normally in animals, behavior is controlled by the brain sending signals to the muscles, but our results suggest that the parasite is controlling host behavior peripherally. Almost like a puppeteer pulls the strings to make a marionette move, the fungus controls the ant’s muscles to manipulate the host’s legs and mandibles.”
And hence, the host is immobolized and the fungus breaks free of its body, spreading its spores and infecting other insects which then begin the cycle all over again. Isn’t it insanely scary?