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Why Are There “Zombie Ants” in the World’s Tropical Rainforests?

Zombie ants are a fascinating phenomenon caused by a parasitic fungus that hijacks their brains, leading to behavior that benefits the fungus's life cycle. This eerie manipulation reflects the complex interplay between species in tropical rainforests. Want to uncover how nature's intricate systems can sometimes turn into a real-life horror story? Keep reading to unravel the secrets of these possessed insects.

Anyone terrified of a zombie apocalypse should heed this warning: Stay out of the jungle. It is there, in the humid, lush environment that a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis behaves as if it's under the direction of horror filmmaker George A. Romero, invading the bodies of carpenter ants and forcing them to do its bidding.

Researchers say the parasitic fungus begins by attaching itself to a host ant, then breaks through its exoskeleton and takes control of its muscle movements. The zombie ant is directed away from its nest and into a warm, moist area with plenty of vegetation, where it is made to chomp down on a leaf and hold on for several days, as the fungus consumes the ant's insides.

Carpenter ants in tropical rainforests serve as hosts for a parasitic fungus that takes over their bodies, turning them into so-called "zombie ants."
Carpenter ants in tropical rainforests serve as hosts for a parasitic fungus that takes over their bodies, turning them into so-called "zombie ants."

When the ant dies, the fungus shoots new spores out of the ant's head in hopes of zombifying more ants. While it sounds like something straight out of the movies, there are some differences. For example, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis never actually enters the brain of its host, but rather uses bioactive compounds to control its victim's muscles directly. Nor is it out to completely take over the world, lest it destroy its own ecosystem.

Instead, it aims to infect only a few ants in every colony. And humans have nothing to fear: While more than 200 species of *Ophiocordyceps* have been found, they are only known to infect about 10 insect species and some spiders.

You think that fungus is scary?

  • The wolffish is a 5-foot (1.5-m) long fish with a huge jaw and a mouthful of teeth, including some huge, sharp ones that stick out even when its mouth is closed.

  • Also known as the horror frog, the wolverine frog is covered in hair-like structures. Even more bizarrely, when it gets riled up, its claws break through its toe bones.

  • After stabbing its prey, the assassin bug sucks it dry, then puts the corpse on its back to carry around; some have been seen carrying dozens of victims.

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    • Carpenter ants in tropical rainforests serve as hosts for a parasitic fungus that takes over their bodies, turning them into so-called "zombie ants."
      Carpenter ants in tropical rainforests serve as hosts for a parasitic fungus that takes over their bodies, turning them into so-called "zombie ants."