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Zombie ants are scarier than you ever imagined

(Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists)

When you think of zombies, maybe George A. Romero’s movie “Night of the Living Dead” or the hit TV show “The Walking Dead” come to mind.

But now there is a new category for mindless eating machines —ants.

A new fungus, known as Ophiocordyceps unilteralis, is turning ants in the actual zombies, causing them to walk mindlessly, eat vegetation and hang on the edges of leaves and twigs. If that were not enough, the fungus takes over the ant’s body, except the brain, researchers say.

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“Fungal cells were found in the host body, but not in the brain, which implies that behavioral control of the animal body by this microbe is side to side,” according to the study, first published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. “In addition, fungal cells invaded host muscle fibers and interconnected networks that the walk around the muscles. These networks could be based on collective foraging behaviour of this parasite, which, in turn, facilitate host manipulation.”

The paper of the authors originally believed that the fungus alters the brain to change the behavior of the ants, but it effectively invades the muscle fibers of the ant, creating a kind of skeleton in the ant.

“The compounds are compared with structures that help in the transport of nutrients and organelles in different plant-associated fungi,” the paper reads. “These findings change the current view of parasite-extended phenotypes by showing that the behavior of the control does not require the parasite to physically invade the host of the brain and that parasite cells can coordinate to change host behaviour.”

David Hughes, senior author of the work, likened it to “a puppeteer [that] pulls the strings to a puppet to move, the fungus controls the ant’s muscles to manipulate the host’s legs and jaws.”

After a period of time, the host ant is immobilized and the fungus sprouts out of the body and searches for another host to infect – all very reminiscent of zombie movies and TV shows.

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