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The zombie ant’s final act before death is to permanently fix itself onto the underside of a branch or twig. After that, it turns into a perfect fungal reproduction vessel.
( Kim Fleming | Penn State University )
Researchers have found that the fungal parasite that makes ants zombie-like invades the ant’s entire body but leaves the brain intact. Other parasites also have mind-control capabilities and some of them are quite terrifying.
Sinister Zombie Ant Fungus
The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis or more commonly known as the Zombie ant fungus isn’t a new discovery, but what researchers found of late makes them even more sinister than previously thought. The zombie ant fungus infects and controls the actions of carpenter ants until their death when the fungi will use the ant’s body to infect other ants on the ground.
Researchers from Penn State University and the University of Notre Dame investigated this sinister phenomenon at a cellular level and found that the fungus evidently infects practically every cell of the ant but leaves the brain uninfected. Much like a puppeteer, the fungi merely takes control of the ants’ muscles, legs, and mandibles.
Experts believe that this is perhaps the fungi’s way of keeping the ant alive so that it can complete its mission when it permanently fixes itself onto the bottom of a branch and dies. The fungus then continues to grow inside the dead ant and produces a protrusion which will then discharge spores to infect other ants on the ground.
The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Other Mind-Controlling Parasites
While the zombie ant fungus has quite the sinister way to survive and thrives at the expense of another creature, there are also other parasites with equally, if not more disturbing mind-control methods.
Crypt Keeper Wasp
The Euderus Set, commonly known as the crypt keeper wasp, is named after the Egyptian God of evil and chaos for a reason. This wasp species begins its mind-control skills at the larval stage when it burrows itself into the body of a gall wasp soon after it hatches from the egg.
Once in control of the gall wasp, the larva urges its host to drill a hole out of the tree except this hole will not be big enough for the two of them. It would only be big enough for the upper half of the gall wasp’s body. The poor host is then left trapped in the hole where the crypt keeper will eat its host from the inside out until it bursts forth from its head.
The green-banded broodsac is a parasitic flatworm that infects snails and makes them appetizing. The green-banded broodsac makes its way to the host snail’s eye stalks and makes them pulse with emerald and olive green stripes so that they will be attractive and colorful. Unfortunately, colorful isn’t exactly useful when you’re a snail trying to avoid being eaten.
The parasite then manipulates the snail’s actions so that it will go to an exposed location where the birds will see it. Once the poor snail is eaten by the bird, the green-banded broodsac continues on with its parasitic cycle.
Ladybugs are cute but they can pack a punch when threatened. It is perhaps this reason that parasitic wasps choose them to guard their equally sinister babies. As it turns out, when the parasitic wasp stings the ladybug, it also leaves behind an egg which would chew the ladybug’s tissues, burst through the ladybug’s abdomen, and spins a cocoon right between its legs.
The ladybug is kept alive through this ordeal, and would serve as the security guards of the cocoons as they thrash around when predators approach. Experts believe that the “protective” act is a likely result of the venom left by the larva. Interestingly, researchers found that a fourth of ladybugs subjected to this ordeal actually survive.
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