There is a frightening fungal parasite which infects ants, by taking control of their bodies and gradually turning them into zombies. Once an individual is infected, the spores of the parasite spread all over its body, and then can easily be transmitted to the entire colony. However, a new study revealed an interesting fact about this fungus. It turns out it doesn’t actually infect the ant’s brain.
The parasitic fungus in question is Ophiocordyceps unilateralissensu lato or, in more general terms, the zombie ant fungus. Once it infects a creature, it automatically turns into a zombie ant. After the parasite gets infiltrated in the victim’s body, it surrounds all its muscles. There, it builds a complex network which can takes control of the muscles, so the fungus can manipulate any movement performed by the ant.
Researchers say that, once the zombie ant fungus is inside the ant, it secretes a series of substances which alter the genes of the host. The traits expressed by the ant once it gets controlled by the fungus are actually an expression of the parasite’s genes. However, the mechanics behind this process remain unknown.
The zombie ant fungus controls the muscles peripherally
Therefore, researchers decided to infect a series of insects with the zombie ant fungus, and see what happens. As a control group, they infected other ants with a different type of fungus. Afterwards, they constructed 3D images of both infections to see what differs. This way, they saw fungus cells all over the ants’ bodies, such as head, abdomen, legs, and thorax. However, there was one place they didn’t reach – the brain.
This was extremely unusual, as researchers thought the zombie ant fungus used the brain to control the muscles. However, in this case, the fungus cells overtook the muscles directly. Therefore, they assumed the fungus kept away from the brain so that the ants could survive until they are assured they can reproduce and infect other individuals.