Ecological Advice for the Bewildered – The Bearded Guide to Life. Part II

Dear Bearded Guide,

I haven’t been feeling like myself for the past few days. For some reason, I started to feel hot and like something is growing inside of me. Also, I’m feeling the urge of going away from the colony and biting a leaf. One day it took all my willpower not to do it; it’s kind of like a voice is telling me to run away from the colony. What’s happening to me? Am I going crazy? I’m genuinely scared for me and my sisters. I think it all started when I walked by Irene yesterday afternoon: she wasn’t moving, had creepy white eyes and had a big white thing growing out of her head. It was like she was dead, but I could still feel her…

Disturbed in the jungle

Dearly Disturbed,

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A stalk of Ophiochordyceps camponotini-balzani growing out from an ant head in a Brazilian rainforest. Photo credit: David Hughes

It sounds like you have a condition and, I’m sorry to say, but it’s terminal one. The way you’re describing it sounds like you have been affected by a fungal parasite called Ophiocordyceps – commonly known as the zombie ant fungi. These fungi need to be hosted by an arthropod (in your case, an ant) to complete their life cycle. They are very selective, however, as they will not infect any old host. Instead, these microorganisms are somehow able to recognize specific host brains, only growing in their preferred ones.

Then, when the fungi find their host, they’ll release a slew of “mind-controlling chemicals”, which is why you’re not feeling like yourself lately. These slave-making chemicals hijack insects’ brains, making them climb up the vegetation and clinching to a leaf or a twig, before releasing its fruiting body (the white stalk growing out of your sister’s head). This stalk contains the spores of the fungus and goes up high to be able to spread wider and infect more ants on the ground. This is basically how the fungus life cycle goes:

howtomakeazombieant

How to make a zombie ant. Source: Microbewiki

This is not a new thing either. Some scientists found evidence of this “death grip” on a 48-Million-years-old fossilized leaf. You see, your affliction is more common than one would think: not only biogeographically (this has been found all over the world, but more commonly in the tropics), but infecting different organisms as well. From spiders to flies, these fungi are “zombifying” everyone they can in terrestrial ecosystems. Recently, while I was walking around in the forests of Fortuna, Panama, I came across a tiny spider infected by a species of fungus. In fact, it was so miniscule that I couldn’t take a proper picture with my camera and had to be taken by a specialized mycologist (Luis C. Mejia) to be properly identified, but I digress.

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This is a ‘mummified’ spider, around 3 mm in length. Photo credit: Javier Ibarra Isassi

I’m very sorry to hear about your condition, but you inspired me to learn more about it. You are probably feeling something growing within you, because the fungus is already growing its hyphae inside of you. Hopefully you’ll be able to read this before it’s too late. If you feel the urge to climb a tree around noon, I’d suggest start saying goodbye to your mother and your sisters, because it will probably be the last time you see them. I hope you got to do everything you wanted to and, if not, live your last moments the best you can! Whether it’s by letting loose and doing something crazy you always wanted to do or just keep doing your chores in the colony. I’m sure everyone in your colony will miss you, but rest assured that you played an important role in the success of your colony.

I feel honoured to be part of your story and I’m glad you shared this with me. Your experience might teach others to detect this condition sooner and hopefully able to find a cure before it’s too late.

Forever your friend, The Bearded Guide to Life

To learn more:

BBCWorldwide. 2008. Cordyceps: attack of the killer fungi – Planet Earth Attenborough BBC wildlife. Video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuKjBIBBAL8

Andersen SB, Gerritsma S, Yusah KM, Mayntz D, Hywel‐Jones NL, Billen J, Boomsma JJ and Hughes DP (2009) The Life of a Dead Ant: The Expression of an Adaptive Extended Phenotype. The American Naturalist 174(3): 424-433

Andersen SB, Ferrari M, Evans HC, Elliot SL, Boomsma JJ, Hughes DP (2012) Disease Dynamics in a Specialized Parasite of Ant Societies. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36352. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036352

Hughes DP, Wappler T, Labandeira CC (2011) Ancient death-grip leaf scars reveal ant–fungal parasitism. Biology Letters7: 67-70. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0521

Castro, J. 2009.”Zombie Fungus Enslaves Only Its Favourite Ant Brains.” Live Science. Published: 9 Sept. 2014. Accessed: 31 Jan. 2017. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/47751-zombie-fungus-picky-about-ant-brains.html

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