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Mar. 30, 2011

Attack of the Zombie...Ants?

by Sarah Wagner

By Sarah Wagner, Institute for Collaborative Education (I.C.E.)

Quick! Run! The zombie apocalypse is finally upon us. But it’s much less scary when it’s ants being zombified.

In Brazil, four new types of fungi were found that take over ants’ brains, turning them into zombies. The fungi, each of which attacks a specific type of ant, makes its home within the ants' body. Then the ant unwittingly does as the fungi commands.

It leaves the nest (a very un-ant like thing to do) and finds a leaf, almost exactly 25 cm off the ground where the humidity is 95%, perfect for the growth of the fungi. The ant is ordered to lock onto the main vein of the leaf...the ants' final resting place. At this point, the fungus grows over the ant's body and produces a stalk from the ant's head. This stalk then drops spores to the floor of the rain forest, infecting other ants as they pass. Two of the four types of fungus release a spore that, if it misses an ant, will grow a stalk on the forest floor to infect passing ants.

But how does this happen?

That's what Evans, Elliot, and Hughes are trying to figure out. They were the first to identify the fungi. So far, all anyone knows is that an unknown chemical is being released into the ants' brain to control their mind.

However, no one may ever know how this fungi works, because of global warming; the particular environment the fungi needs to grow, is becoming scarcer. Not only does this mean that there will be an unanswered mystery, but also a possible spike in ant population...and who wants more ants?

The earliest evidence of these zombie-making fungi was found in Germany, in a fossilized leaf that is 48 million years old. The fossilized leaf is scarred with a dumbbell shape created when a zombie ant gripped on to the leaf with its mandibles. The fungi managed to survive 48 million years of change, but will it be able to adapt to the current changes in the environment?

Who knows, but let's just hope this fungus doesn't develop a taste for humans.
________

Sarah Wagner is completing her senior year internship at TalkingScience. She attends the Institute for Collaborative Education (I.C.E.) an alternative high school in Manhattan, NY. She loves the constant change of scientific discoveries, the unknown that is continually being redefined around us.

About Sarah Wagner

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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