AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Did ants originate from zombies? This fungus will give you the answers.

There is a certain fungus that turns ants into zombies, but afterward, they explode. When ants are just walking by minding their own business they step on fungal spores. It attaches to the ant’s body and the fungal cell goes inside of the ant. The fungus feeds from within and increasingly multiples cells and it is called, Ophiocordyceps,   mainly living in the tropics. The danger about this fungus is that the ant is unaware of this whole process, it goes about its daily life, searching for food and bringing back to its nest. However, the fungus takes up half of an ant’s body mass. It undergoes a parasitic relationship where the fungus benefits, while the ant is harmed.

Once the fungus is done feeding, the ant will feel a needle-like sensation. What is happening here is that the fungus is pushing on the ant’s muscle cells. And the cell signals also get sent to the ant’s brain, then the ant will climb upwards above its nest. Ophiocordyceps does something very weird where it allows the ants to move upwards to a leaf above ground and then the ant bites down, where it locks its jaw. Then it sends out “sticky threads that glue the corpse to the leaf.” The ant’s head then bursts open, called a “fruiting body”, where it looks like horns projecting from the ant’s heads and the horns disperse more of these fungal spores onto its nest below it leaving behind a trail of spores. 

Hornlike antlers that come out of the ant’s head

There is still so much that is unknown about Ophiocordyceps because scientists don’t even know what kind of chemical gets into the ant’s brain causing it to climb. There are ants that age back to 48 million years old gripped onto leaves.  Scientists thought there was one species that zombified ants but it turns out there are at least 28 different fungal species that attack other insects as well. Dr. Araújo drew out a family tree to see what was infected by Ophiocordyceps. It became known that all Ophiocordyceps species come from a common ancestor, first infecting beetles larvae, not hemipteran.

The beetles that are affected by the larvae live in eroding logs.

“They’re mostly solitary creatures, with a very different life history,” compared to ants, she said.

It can now be inferred that possibly millions of years ago when this was happening to beetles, ants picked up the fungus if they were living in the same logs. Thus a constant cycle and more spreading of fungal spores. Even though natural selection favored keeping the ant’s host healthy and away from parasites, Ophiocordyceps had to find a way to make the ant leave the nest, not far enough from its environment, but just in the right place to send out the spore to infect whatever other ants were living around it. 

Because this behavior is so unordinary it is not possible that only one gene is responsible for all of this. They keep finding new species. Dr. Hughes and Dr. Araújo are still researching to find that there are hundreds of other species of Ophiocordyceps that are yet to be discovered.

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  1. actrevationenergy

    This is the amazing part of the world that is never really talked about. Its weird to think that there are things like zombies in the world. Interestingly there is also a type of parasitic worm that infects snails and takes over their brains. As seen in the article attached, the worms grow into the snails eye stalks, enlarging them and making a weird green pulsating color scheme. It really looks like a zombie.

  2. Ethanol

    LOL! I was hooked by the first line. It is incredible to think that this really happens in nature. The fungus is capable f hijacking the brain and body of the ants and uses them to spread its fungal spores. It sounds like the plot of a horror movie. It is crazy to think that the infected ants have no idea they are being taken over. Another interesting piece of information that I found on the subject is the fact that zombified ants are not exiled from the nest, and are in fact not treated any differently than a healthy ant.

  3. tytybox

    This is really dope, great title by the way, totally the reason I picked this post. It’s really crazy to think about the effect a fungus can have on an animal, and I wonder what kind of potential fungus has. This article talks about the history and capabilities of parasitic fungi, and it’s pretty crazy to think about what something like it can do.

  4. Bacterina

    While looking through the articles written by our fellow classmates, as soon as I saw your title I knew I had to click and read. Your title initially pulled me in but the information within the blog is what made me deeply intrigued in this topic. I found it quite interesting how the ants are unaware of this fungus growing inside them which makes me wonder about other potential parasitic relationships that could be happening in humans or other animals. I’m excited to see a further study on this topic and eventual findings on the chemical which causes this phenomenon. This article speaks of how this fungus has inspired modern zombie films with pandemics based on this fungus. Also, It further elaborates on the life cycle of the fungus and introduces a variation of the fungus, Cordyceps ignota, which occurs in tarantulas. The article truly shows how bioresearch can provide a richer and logical explanation for works of art while simultaneously making the public more aware of the amazing process of the environment.

  5. abbyogenesis

    As we get older zombies like Santa and the tooth fairy are among things that we are told are imaginary but this blog post proves differently! It is so cool to hear that although they are not human zombies, zombies in animals exist! This article goes more in depth about how the fungus, Ophiocordyceps, genuinely controls the minds of the ants!

  6. Johnomer

    I found this article very interesting and I think you did a great job writing the first sentence as it really grabbed my attention. I never thought a fungus could turn ants into zombies and I was surprised to read that these ants are found almost 50 million years old. I’m excited to see what other species scientists discover as more is learned about Ophiocordyceps. I found an interesting article at that explains how the fungus cells interact once they enter the ant’s body. Initially, the cells stay away from each other but over time they begin to interact more until they connect to each other by building short tubes. With these tubes they can communicate and exchange nutrients and ultimately take over the ant.

  7. DNAiel

    This post is very interesting, and I was hooked from the heading! It does a great job of keeping the reader interested throughout the whole post. Along with the title, the information in this post was very fascinating. One question I have is: How does the fungus benefit from killing the ant?

    This is the link to another article that shares the same topic, but it further explains the process and motives of the fungus.

  8. EvoluChen

    I liked how this post has a very unique topic and how it gives a reason for how/why this occurs. I also liked how the post addressed the fact that there will be more research done in the future to figure out the other species of Ophiocordyceps that are undiscovered. I wonder if and how this discovery could affect humans in the future.
    This article talks about how cicadas domesticated the fungus and how it is an important part of their body.

  9. Charmunnity Englandiffusion

    Very interesting article! I thought it was cool that the animal is unaware of the parasitic process occurring. I wonder if this condition is something that some humans could have, maybe then, will thee be more research on the subject. I also wonder how the parasitic fungus evolved, and what exactly it feeds off of in the ant, or other host species. Here is an article that elaborates a little more on the subject, it is written by George Dvorsky from the website “Gizmodo”:

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