A zombie apocalypse is the stuff of nightmares; it’s what a lot of people think about as one of the reasons for the end of the world as we know it. It may not be happening with humans right now, but some species in the animal kingdom live with it as a common part of their lives.
Meet the Ophiocordyceps, also known as the zombie fungus, and its favorite victim: Ants.
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This parasitic fungus is so named because when ants come across its spores, the fungus latches onto the ant and infects its entire body. The process is fast and brutal, and after it is finished, the ant has now been “zombified.” But what does that mean, exactly? According to Live Science, a website featuring groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, culture, and history, the fungus takes hold of the body by attacking the ant’s central nervous system.
Once the fungus accomplishes this, it will then “force the ant to climb up vegetation and clamp down onto a leaf or twig before killing its hapless drone. It then grows a spore-releasing stalk out of the back of the victim’s head to infect more ants on the ground below.”
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Fascinated by this strange event in nature, Charissa de Bekker, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University and lead author of the new study, began research that aims to explain the other half of this phenomenon. Observations have shown that while ophiocordyceps affects only ants, it seems that they only affect certain ants more than others. So, it is not absolute that all ants will fall to their doom at one point in their lives due to the fungus, but it’s odd how only a certain species may be more susceptible than others.
In their study, de Bekker injected the liquid fungal material into the Camponotus pennsylvanicus and Formica dolosa, two species of ants not known to be hosts to the fungus. They were trying to see if these two kinds of ants would be affected by the fungus the same way the other ants were.
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Their hypothesis was further supported as the study revealed that the Camponotus species died shortly after being mind-controlled for only a short while, and the F. dolosa not surviving at all before the injection treatment.
It turned out that the reason for the death of both of these species had to do with the fact that the fungus was “studying” them from the inside. The researchers came to the conclusion that “the fungus produced a different chemical cocktail for each ant species, suggesting it “knows” the brains of its target hosts and reacts accordingly.” The scientists also took a close look at the compounds that made the fungus’ efforts at mind control possible and found them to be the chemicals guanidinobutyric acid (GBA) and sphingosine.