BRAIN CONTROLLING FUNGI CREATES ZOMBIE ANTS!

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In a scenario that seems straight out of a George Romero flick, Live Science and Science Daily have reported that scientists have identified four terrifying  new species of brain-controlling “zombifying” fungi that can turn ants into zombies that do the parasite’s bidding before it kills them.

Identified from samples collected at two sites in Brazil’s tropical rain forest, each of the four species of fungi specializes in controlling a different species of carpenter ant. The original zombie-ant fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, was first identified in 1865, and it seems to exist around the world. David Hughes — an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University — explained the range of this insidious zombie fungus:

“We knew, right off the bat, there was a range of other species within that. I think it will turn out to be in the hundreds.”

Once the fungus infects the ant it uses as-yet-unidentified chemicals to control the ant’s behavior. It directs the ant to leave its colony (a very un-ant-like thing to do) and bite down on the underside of a leaf — the ant’s soon-to-be resting place. Once it is killed by the fungus, the ant remains anchored in place, thanks to its death grip on the leaf.

Ultimately, the fungus produces a long stalk that protrudes from the ant’s head, shooting spores out in the hopes of infecting other ants. Two of the four newly discovered species also sprouted smaller stalks elsewhere, including from the victim’s feet and lower leg joints — the equivalent of knees.

Hughes is concerned that one of the four fungus species, O. camponoti-novogranadensis, may not be around for much longer. During their visits to Brazil, Hughes and his colleagues saw that the high-elevation site where the species was found had become markedly drier and hotter.

Hughes attributed the change to global warming and stated that while the ants can survive this shift in the local climate,  the fungus — which is essentially an aquatic organism — can’t. According to Hughes:

“What we think we will see is the extinction event of the fungus we just managed to describe.”

This may be the first good news we’ve ever heard about global warming. Let’s just hope that when it can no longer use ants it doesn’t species jump to us instead.

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