A parasitic fungus that infects tropical carpenter ants inhabiting rainforest canopies turns them into zombies.
These ants become erratic and zombie-like, whom the fungus manipulates into dying at a spot that provides optimal conditions for fungal reproduction.
The new research looks at altered behaviour patterns in zombie ants in Thailand, reports the journal BioMed Central Ecology.
A team of researchers investigated the infected carpenter ants in Thailand’s rainforest. The growing fungus fills the ant’s body and head, causing muscles to atrophy and forcing muscle fibres apart.
David Hughes from Penn State University said: “The fungus attacks the ants on two fronts.”
“Firstly by using the ant as a walking food source, and secondly by damaging muscle and the ant’s central nervous system, resulting in zombie walking and the death bite, which place the ant in the cool damp understory,” said Hughes, who led the study.
According to a Penn statement, the fungus also affects the ant’s central nervous system and while normal worker ants rarely left the trail, zombie ants walked in a random manner, unable to find their way home. The ants also suffered convulsions which caused them to fall to the ground.
The multiplying fungal cells in the ant’s head cause fibres within the muscles that open and close the ant’s mandibles to become detached.
A few days later, the fungus generates a fruiting body from the ant’s head which releases spores to be picked up by another wandering ant, and help the fungus to reproduce.