The natural world is a terrifying place, and it just got a little scarier — especially for ants. Wired reports that scientists have reported that they have discovered 4 new kinds of fungus in Brazil that infect ants, effectively turning them into zombies that serve the will of the fungal infector. Fungus of the genus Cordyceps are not new to science, though their surprising diversity and how they take control of their hosts is still quite mysterious.
After infection, the ants simply stop behaving like ants. They leave the colony and climb into trees were they eventually die. The fungus is certainly in control, as infected ants are always attracted to the areas that would best suit the fungus’ reproduction: leaves about 25cm from the ground and angled towards the sun. Interestingly, each fungus has different growing requirements, and thus the angle of the leaf the ant is compelled towards is dependent on what kind of fungus is infecting the ant.
As if the whole concept of mind-controlling fungus wasn’t creepy enough, these new fungi sport an array of weapons to ensnare new hosts.
Of the four new species, two grow long, arrow-like spores which eject like missiles from the fungus, seeking to land on a passing ant. The other fungi propel shorter spores, which change shape in mid-air to become like boomerangs and land nearby. If these fail to land on an ant, the spores sprout stalks that can snag ants walking over them. Upon infecting the new ant, the cycle starts again.
Keep in mind that this is all within the beautiful circle of life: just before the ant succumbs to the infection and dies, it bites into a leaf. Its mandibles anchor the ant’s carcass, which is consumed by the fungus and used to disperse spores for up to a year. The ants are vital to the fungi’s reproduction, but the fungus also keeps the ant populations in check.
These fungi have had a great effect on the human world as well, primarily in the field of medical science. The mind-controlling fungus is in a group related to the fungus that produces LSD, and another fungus used to suppress the immune system to prevent organ transplant rejection, and still yet another used as an antibiotic. However, these amazing organisms are under threat, as they thrive in the wet conditions of the rainforest. Shifting global temperatures are drying up much of the region, making the future of the amazing mind-controlling fungus uncertain.
(images and story via Wired)
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