Zombie ants may be brain-locked by insidious fungus
How would you like to be hacked at the neuro-cellular level? You’ll be completely aware, able to see and hear and even feel pain, but another agent will be running your body and its plans for your husk include slow starvation, being a living host for younglings, and death! According to a new article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong, that may be exactly what happens to industrious rain-forest insects infected by a rather nightmarish fungus:
Once an infection is underway, he says, the neurons in the ant’s body—the ones that give its brain control over its muscles—start to die. Hughes suspects that the fungus takes over. It effectively cuts the ant’s limbs off from its brain and inserts itself in place, releasing chemicals that force the muscles there to contract. If this is right, then the ant ends its life as a prisoner in its own body. Its brain is still in the driver’s seat, but the fungus has the wheel.
The zombie ant parasite is known scientifically as Ophiocordyceps unilateral and it sure takes the fun out of fungus. We’re lucky there aren’t similar slimy creatures out there looking to get behind the wheel of a mammalian brain, especially a human version. Imagine the damage that could do. But there are creatures that come close, and one of the best-known is rabies.
When rabies virus infects a mammal it causes the saliva glands to over produce and interferes with swallowing. It also increases aggression and/or inhibits normal social interaction: scientists aren’t sure precisely how. But the end result is a ferocious, pissed off, confused animal foaming at the mouth that wants to bite anything it can get its jaws on, despite the danger. Which is how the virus spreads.
Fungi and insects have been around for hundreds of millions of years. That’s plenty of time for specialized parasites like the zombie ant fungus to evolve in step with its favored host, the carpenter ant. Given enough time in the wild, there’s no biological reason why something similar could not evolve with a far more capable host like a human being. Now, write your own zombie parasite Trump jokes …