The zombie-ant fungus is under attack, research reveals

May 02, 2012
A parasite that fights the zombie-ant fungus has yielded some of its secrets to an international research team led by David Hughes of Penn State University. The research reveals, for the first time, how an entire ant colony is able to survive infestations by the zombie-ant fungus, which invades an ant's brain and causes it to march to its death at a mass grave near the ant colony, where the fungus spores erupt out of the ant's head. This photo shows a zombie ant with a mature, healthy fruiting body growing from the ant's neck. Some damage due to a chewing insect is visible, as is a spider making a home beneath the ant. Credit: David Hughes, Penn State University

A parasite that fights the zombie-ant fungus has yielded some of its secrets to an international research team led by David Hughes of Penn State University. The research reveals, for the first time, how an entire ant colony is able to survive infestations by the zombie-ant fungus, which invades an ant's brain and causes it to march to its death at a mass grave near the ant colony, where the fungus spores erupt out of the ant's head. "In a case where biology is stranger than fiction, the parasite of the zombie-ant fungus is itself a fungus -- a hyperparasitic fungus that specializes in attacking the parasite that turns the ants into zombies," Hughes said. The research will be published in the journal PLoS ONE.

"The hyperparasitic fungus effectively castrates the zombie-ant fungus so it cannot spread its spores," said Hughes, who is an assistant professor of entomology and biology, and a member of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State. "Because the hyperparasitic fungi prevents the infected zombie-ant fungus from spreading spores, fewer of the will become zombies."

A parasite that fights the zombie-ant fungus has yielded some of its secrets to an international research team led by David Hughes of Penn State University. The research reveals, for the first time, how an entire ant colony is able to survive infestations by the zombie-ant fungus, which invades an ant's brain and causes it to march to its death at a mass grave near the ant colony, where the fungus spores erupt out of the ant's head. This photo shows a zombie ant with the brain-manipulating fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.) having been castrated by an hyperparasite fungus (white with yellow material). Credit: David Hughes, Penn State University

As part of their research, the scientists created a detailed model that revealed previously unknown details of the interactions between the fungus-infected ants and the parasite-infected zombie-ant fungus. Scientists previously had known that ants defend their colonies against microscopic enemies such as by efficiently grooming each other. In this study, the researchers also modeled the effect of ant behavior on limiting infection. "Interestingly, beyond the well known effect of defensive ant behavior, our new research reveals the added effect of the castrating actions of the hyperparasite fungi, which may result in significantly limiting the spread of the zombie-ant fungus" Hughes said.

The scientists report that only about 6.5 percent of the spore-producing organs of the zombie-ant fungus were viable. "Even though there are a lot of dead and infected zombie ants in the neighborhood, only a few of the spores of the zombie-ant fungus will become mature and able to infect healthy ants," Hughes said. "Our research indicates that the danger to the is much smaller than the high density of zombie-ant cadavers in the graveyard might suggest. This complex interaction between ant colonies, their brain-manipulating , and other capable of lending assistance to the colony underscores the need to study social insects under natural conditions." Hughes said his team is expanding its efforts and "remains focused on following the exciting theatre played out on the rainforest floor."

Explore further: Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Zombie ants have fungus on the brain

May 09, 2011

Tropical carpenter ants (Camponotus leonardi) live high up in the rainforest canopy. When infected by a parasitic fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) the behaviour of the ants is dramatically changed. They ...

Parasite causes zombie ants to die in an ideal spot

Aug 11, 2009

A study in the September issue of The American Naturalist describes new details about a fungal parasite that coerces ants into dying in just the right spot -- one that is ideal for the fungus to grow and reproduce. The st ...

New parasitic fungi found that turn ants into zombies

Mar 04, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists from the US and UK have discovered four new species of parasitic fungi in the Brazilian rainforests. The fungi attack four distinct species of ants and release mind-altering chemicals ...

Long-term co-evolution stability studied

Jun 27, 2006

U.S. biologists say the world's fungus-farming ants cultivate essentially the same fungus and aren't as critical to fungi reproduction as had been thought.

Recommended for you

Male monkey filmed caring for dying mate (w/ Video)

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —The incident was captured by Dr Bruna Bezerra and colleagues in the Atlantic Forest in the Northeast of Brazil.  Dr Bezerra is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol and a Professor ...

Orchid named after UC Riverside researcher

Apr 17, 2014

One day about eight years ago, Katia Silvera, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Riverside, and her father were on a field trip in a mountainous area in central Panama when they stumbled ...

In sex-reversed cave insects, females have the penises

Apr 17, 2014

Researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on April 17 have discovered little-known cave insects with rather novel sex lives. The Brazilian insects, which represent four distinct but re ...

Fear of the cuckoo mafia

Apr 17, 2014

If a restaurant owner fails to pay the protection money demanded of him, he can expect his premises to be trashed. Warnings like these are seldom required, however, as fear of the consequences is enough to ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Hengine
1 / 5 (1) May 02, 2012
Will humanity survive long enough to spectate a different species develop intelligence on par with humans?

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.