Zombie Ant-pocalypse: New Species of Mind-Controlling Fungus Found

Picture source: David Hughes / National Geographic

Get out your tiny shotguns and chainsaws–the ant zombie apocalypse is here! Of course, it’s been raging for 48 million years now, but you can never be too careful.

Four new species of fungi that turn ants into little tiny extras from a George A. Romero movie have been found in the Brazilian rain forest. What was originally thought to be a single species, called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, was recently discovered to be four distinct ones.

David Hughes, a Penn State University entomologist, and his colleagues made the discovery after noticing a wide diversity of fungal growths emerging from ant victims, according to the March 2 study in the journal PLoS ONE.

These particular fungus species take over ant brains with mind-altering chemicals, control them like voodoo dolls and then kill them once they’ve done the fungus’s bidding.

“It’s related to the fungus that LSD comes from,” Hughes said. “Obviously they are producing lots of interesting chemicals.”

Imagine you’re a carpenter ant hanging out with your little worker ant buddies back at the colony. Suddenly, you notice Carl doesn’t look so good. His mandibles have gone slack and he’s not laughing at any of your dirty thorax jokes. You shake him and slap his antennae. Nothing. No response. Then, without a word, Carl slowly turns and walks away, never to be seen or heard from again.

Carl is on full zombie autopilot now. He finds a small shrub and starts climbing. Once he reaches the underside of a leaf about 25 centimeters above the ground and at just the right angle to the sun, he clamps his jaws on the edge or a vein, anchoring himself to the leaf. As the John Murphy soundtrack swells, Carl dies.

The fungus then takes over and turns the ant carcass into a Willy Wonka factory of spore production for the next year. These spores infect other ants, creating more fungus-loving zombies. And before you know it, all the tiny ant malls are overrun by hordes of zombie insects.

How these species of fungi control ants is a mystery. But hopefully, scientists will figure it out before a bad case of athlete’s foot fungus turns into World War Z.