Zombie Fungus Rears Its Ugly Head
Photograph courtesy David Hughes
A stalk of the newfound fungus species Ophiocordyceps camponoti-balzani, grows out of a "zombie" ant's head in a Brazilian rain forest.
Originally thought to be a single species, called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the fungus is actually four distinct species—all of which can "mind control" ants—scientists announced Wednesday.
The fungus species can infect an ant, take over its brain, and then kill the insect once it moves to a location ideal for the fungi to grow and spread their spores.
(Related pictures: ""Zombie" Ants Controlled, Decapitated by Flies.")
All four known fungi species live in Brazil's Atlantic rain forest, which is rapidly changing due to climate change and deforestation, said study leader David Hughes, an entomologist at Penn State University.
Hughes and colleagues made the discovery after noticing a wide diversity of fungal growths emerging from ant victims, according to the March 2, 2011 study in the journal PLoS ONE.
"It is tempting to speculate that each species of fungus has its own ant species that it is best adapted to attack," Hughes said.
"This potentially means thousands of zombie fungi in tropical forests across the globe await discovery," he said. "We need to ramp up sampling—especially given the perilous state of the environment."