Zombies in Thailand

Zombie ant going off course.

There are zombies roaming the forest canopies of Thailand. Their behaviors become erratic and not long after infection, they have trouble walking and conducting their daily lives. And then, once the infection is ready for its endgame and the sun reaches high noon, their heads explode.

This isn’t any science fiction story, it’s the real deal. But don’t worry, it’s been happening for longer than humans have been around and the victims aren’t exactly cute.

The carpenter ant of Thailand’s rainforests (Camponotus leonardi) often succumbs to the infestation of the fungus Ophiocordyceps. That’s right, it’s not aliens, not a virus and certainly not embalming fluid. Instead, it’s a fungus causes them to become zombies.

Once the spore is picked up by the unfortunate fellow, it immediately gets inside of the ant’s body and begins to grow. The fungal fibers make their way into the central nervous system, wreaking havoc and making the ants become disorderly. They can’t find their trail, they walk randomly and probably even have a bit of zombie limp due to the fungus growing between their muscle fibers.

Fancy-pants image of fungi growing inside the brain of an ant.

Thanks to the disorderly walking and atrophied muscles, the ants fall from the foliage to the ground below. Here, the shade and moisture content is ideal for the fungus to grow. Soon, the fungus has grown enough to write the final chapter.

At high noon, the ant has a sudden impulse to climb to the ideal height and location for the fungus to spread its spores. It bites the vein in the underside of a leaf. The fungus then spreads even further, wedging its way into the ant’s jaw muscles, causing lock-jaw and placing the ant into its final resting place.

Marks made by the last bite of the zombie ant.

It isn’t long now. After a little bit more time and growing, the fungus has reached a critical mass. It explodes out of the ant’s head, releasing spores to be picked up by other ants marching nearby. The ants body is left hanging, usually amidst a host of unlucky fellow ants in enormous graveyards in the leaves.

Who says science isn’t cool?

And just in case you were wondering, the study was carried out by an international team of scientists including several from Penn State University. They used transmission-electron and light microscopes to investigate exactly how the fungus grows and infiltrates the central nervous system. The goal is to perhaps someday use the knowledge to create pesticides.

Just so long as they don’t begin infecting humans…

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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