Posted by: Viktor Mar | 2011 March 3

Zombie Fungus Rears Its Ugly Head

ant

Photograph courtesy David Hughes

A stalk of the newfound fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani, grows out of a "zombie" ant’s head in a Brazilian rain forest.

Originally thought to be a single species, called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the fungus is actually four distinct species—all of which can "mind control" ants—scientists announced Wednesday.

The fungus species can infect an ant, take over its brain, and then kill the insect once it moves to a location ideal for the fungi to grow and spread their spores.

All four known fungi species live in Brazil‘s Atlantic rain forest, which is rapidly changing due to climate change and deforestation, said study leader David Hughes, an entomologist at Penn State University.

Hughes and colleagues made the discovery after noticing a wide diversity of fungal growths emerging from ant victims, according to the March 2 study in the journal PLoS ONE.

"It is tempting to speculate that each species of fungus has its own ant species that it is best adapted to attack," Hughes said.

"This potentially means thousands of zombie fungi in tropical forests across the globe await discovery," he said. "We need to ramp up sampling—especially given the perilous state of the environment."

—Matt Kaplan

Wasp Stung by Zombie Fungus

wasp

Photograph courtesy David Hughes

Ants aren’t the only zombie-fungi hosts—other insects also fall prey to fungus. Above, a wasp is infected by a Cordyceps fungus species that hasn’t yet been named or formally documented.

Fungi of the Cordyceps genus are the products of a tightly evolved arms race between hosts and parasites, study author Hughes noted.

That means the fungi are often locked into one type of host—a specialization that might spell doom for fungi species as host species die out.

Cricket No More

cricket

Photograph courtesy David Hughes

Crickets too can fall prey to zombie fungi (as pictured), though little is known about the fungus species that brought this insect to its horrific end.

Hughes plans to remedy that—and expects to find many more zombie fungus species in the forests of Brazil.

"This is only the tip," he said, "of what will be a very large iceberg."

Published March 3, 2011

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