Frightful Fungi and Zombie Ants

A Time for Scary Stories

For the spook-tacular month of October, we’re going to be doing something a little different. We’re not going to discuss ways that mold can scare homeowners – we do enough of that as it is, and those tales always have a happy ending. Nothing else about how you can prevent serious mold damage or what signs you should be on the lookout for. Today, I have a little story to share, one that is frightening and chilling.  Some of you may have heard this one before, but if you haven’t -boy, are you in for a treat. Get ready for a spine-chilling tale about one of the relatives of mold: fungi. Treat this as a spooky reminder of how nature can be both BEAUTIFUL and TERRIFYING. Today we discuss the stuff of nightmares: real-life brain-controlling parasites!

 

A small warning before we go any further into this entry: there are some potentially gruesome images contained within. Go no further if you are easily scared. And don’t worry, we’re going back to our regularly scheduled program next month.

The Puppeteers

Imagine if you will, you’re working in an off-world colony, the first one that humanity has established upon reaching the stars. It’s cramped, and you’re crawling over the other colonists, but so far everything is okay. The world is an amazing rainforest, teeming with life. Animals sing in the canopy and prowl through the undergrowth. It appears as a paradise. But we’ve all seen this movie before, haven’t we? What appears to be perfect hides dark secrets. And it isn’t long before some of your fellow colonists begin to act strange…

 

They twitch and move with a jerky, strange walk, seeking the highest parts of the trees to perch, almost impulsively. What is causing them to seek higher and higher ground? Just a few sent far afield start to display this strange madness and disappear. Soon these missing colonists are found clinging to branches, high in the trees above the colony. Each has a strange addition to their person: a trio of long winding tendrils sticking out of their back. Each one ends in a giant bulbous growth that finally bursts. Spores spread from it with the wind, infecting others!

Soon more colonists start to climb, against their will. Those discovered as infected by this alien disease are taken out of the colony, led away for the protection of the others. It’s too late though.  There are too many to safely spirit away, and many are able to climb above. For every infected that reaches the treetops to spread the spores, another ten get infected! The colonists are just fertile ground for the strange, parasitic fauna. Who knew that such a powerful parasite existed in this paradise of a jungle? The panic grips the colony further until there is nothing but anarchy and the spores.

 

 

The Terrifying Truth

Now, what if I were to tell you this isn’t science fiction? Don’t worry, though. No person is affected like this except in horror movies and alien fiction. Unless you happen to be an entomologist, you’ll likely never encounter anything like what we’ve described. However, for someone who studies insects, this is both a nightmare and a wonderful dream to study. The small story I shared is what millions (if not billions) of ants in the rainforest have to contend with. This is a terrifying fungus known by its scientific name as ophiocordyceps unilateralis, or the “zombie ant virus.” For this blog, I’ll be referring to it as what naturalist David Attenborough calls it; cordyceps. In spite of the pop-culture nickname, it doesn’t infect only ants, but many insects. This is because there’s being several species of cordyceps. Once an insect becomes infected, there is no hope for it. What makes it terrifying is how it takes over the creature to puppet it instead of killing it. At least, at first.

 

Let’s take a humble ant for our example. It becomes infected, a host to the cordyceps. Numerous spores become cells within the body which start to spread, copying themselves like a virus. Once there are enough of them, the cells begin to coordinate. They build tubes within the ant’s body and even beginning to act like a microscopic colony within the ant. It finally gets to the point that it can puppet the ant. At this point, the grand plan of the coryceps begins. The ant climbs to the highest point and perches above the colony, the perfect spot to spread the spores through the colony. The ant dies, firmly attached to the branch, and the cordyceps begins growing a stalk out of the ant. A large sac of spores bursts finally, and the spores are sent through the colony below. Here’s the big plot twist though! Cordyceps may infect the ant’s entire body, but they do this without actually even touching the ant’s brain.  If you desire more detail, The Atlantic has an article on it.

 

A Purpose to Everything

The cordyceps might sound terrifying and even crazy, especially if you’re an insect. But it serves a purpose in the rainforest. Yes, it can wipe out entire colonies, but as stated, there’s about four hundred species of cordyceps. And not all cordyceps are parasitic. Those that are, affect different species of insect. Given the delicate balance of the ecosystem, it acts like a safety net to help keep that balance. If one species of insect becomes too dominant, the cordyceps will be more likely to target them. As opposed to the other species, thus allowing the fungus to thrive as it purges the others. A rainforest is a massive living organism to begin with, and it’s only natural for such a being to have something that can help protect it from within. That’s right: Cordyceps are nature’s insect zombie virus, acting as a kind of population control!

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