Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis: What Is the ‘Zombie Ant’ Fungus?

A fungus that turns ants into zombies doesn’t even need their braaaiiins to control their bodies.

Deep in the forests of Brazil, a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is taking over the brains of carpenter ants and directing them to other parts of the forest that the fungus finds more hospitable.

“This so-called zombie or brain-manipulating fungus alters the behavior of the ant host, causing it to die in an exposed position, typically clinging onto and biting into the adaxial surface of shrub leaves,” said the authors of a study published in the journal Plos ONE in 2011, which introduced the world to the concept of zombie ants.

In a 10-day process, the fungus takes over the ant’s body, directs its actions throughout the forest, and ultimately kills the creature. It then releases its spores from the dead ant’s head and neck, and those spores go on to turn another wave of ants into zombies.

New research reveals even more disturbing findings. It turns out the fungus invades the ant’s body, but it doesn’t even need the ant’s braaaiiiins.

Through electron microscopy and 3D reconstructions of the host and parasite tissues, an international team of entomologists, geneticists, computer scientists, and microbiologists learned that the fungus invades muscle fibers throughout the ant’s body but leaves the brain intact.

In other words, the ant is alive and conscious while the fungus controls its behavior. O. unilateralis is able to hijack the ant’s body and control it as a literal extension of its physical self.

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