Real Life Zombies
The story of fungal mind control
Did you know that zombies exist in real life? It all starts with an ant living happily in a rainforest. The ant goes about its daily life but what it doesn’t know is that a fungus has found its way into the ant’s body. This fungus is no ordinary mushroom – it’s what’s known as a parasite. Parasites are a category of organism which live in the bodies of other plants or animals in order to survive. Parasites are very selfish – they take food and energy away from the organism in which they are living, without giving anything in return. In the case of the rainforest ant, the fungus starts its life as a tiny being, smaller than anything you can see with your eyes. The fungus lives in the ant’s bloodstream and grows bigger and bigger each day, but the ant has no idea the fungus is there. Eventually, the fungus grows big enough and starts turning the ant into a zombie!
But why would the fungus want to turn an ant into a zombie? Well, as much as the fungus likes living in the ant, its ultimate goal is to make smaller fungi so they can infect even more ants in the rainforest. So, to give its baby fungi a chance to live in more ants, the bigger fungus has to leave the ant’s body. But the fungus is smart: it doesn’t want to leave the ant when it’s on the forest floor, because it won’t be able to spread its baby fungi very far. Instead, the fungus wants to release its baby fungi from a branch high up in the trees. From up there, the baby fungi can float down to the forest floor and land on more ants.
So how does the fungus get up to a branch high in the trees? By turning the ant into a zombie! The fungus releases chemicals that cause the ant to lose control of its body which means the fungus can take over. It’s like the fungus is a puppeteer who directs every movement of its puppet: the ant. So instead of behaving like a normal ant, it starts doing strange things because the fungus is telling it what to do. Once the fungus is ready to release its baby fungi, it forces the ant to climb up to a branch in the trees and latch on tightly with its mouth. Normally, the ant wouldn’t do this because it isn’t safe or helpful for the ant’s daily life, but the ant is now completely under the fungus’ spell – it does anything the fungus wants. Unfortunately for the ant, this means hanging onto the branch instead of searching for food or building shelter. So, after a few days on the branch, the zombie ant dies, and the fungus emerges from its puppet. The fungus releases all of its baby fungi to rain down on the other ants below, starting the process all over again.
Sounds like science fiction, right? Believe it or not, this sort of thing happens in nature all the time! Parasites are some of the cleverest species out there – they make other organisms do their dirty work so they can live a comfortable life. But it’s not without consequence, most often, parasites turn the lives of the plants or animals they infect into a nightmare, just like the story of the fungus and zombie ant.
Image Source: Sian Cooper (@the_colourful_pixel) from Unsplash