SCIENCE & TECH

'Zombie ant' brains left intact by fungal parasite

A fungal parasite that infects ants and manipulates their behavior to benefit the fungus’ reproduction accomplishes this feat without infecting the ants’ brains. Instead, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato — a complex of species sometimes called “zombie ant fungus” — surrounds and invades muscle fibers throughout the ant’s body, and fungal cells form a 3-D network that may enable them to collectively control host behavior. Previous research showed that this species-specific parasite controls the behavior of carpenter ant workers, compelling them to climb vegetation and bite into the underside of leaves or twigs, where they die. As the fungus grows in the ant cadaver, it produces a stalk that protrudes from the ant’s head and discharges infectious spores onto the ground below, where they can infect other foraging ants.

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