The idea of a zombie apocalypse has risen in interest and popularity in recent years, thanks to tv shows and movies exploring this genre of scientific horror. But in the wake of a global pandemic, one must wonder – is a zombie takeover far-fetched? With amazement and terror, we would like to report that, no, zombies aren’t a phenomenon confined to science fiction stories.
There is a parasitic fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (cordyceps for short) that can be found deep in tropical forests around Thailand, Brazil, Central America, and Africa. It was discovered by Alfred Russell Wallace, a British naturalist, in 1859. Cordyceps spreads by releasing spores that target ants as hosts. Once landing on its prey, cordyceps evolves through four stages: ant infection, the “death grip,” stalk growth, and dispersal.
When a cordyceps spore lands on an ant, it pierces the ant’s exoskeleton and injects its body with chemicals. This gives the cordyceps fungus the ability to control the ant's body. After about two days, the fungus is in complete control, and it directs the ant away from its colony to a location where light and humidity are ideal for further fungal growth.
Once the ant is in the right setting, the fungus forces the ant to clamp down on the stem or leaf it’s perched on and, after doing so, it officially dies. After the death grip, the fungus completely consumes the ant’s internal organs. A stem begins to grow from the ant’s head and once the fungus has fully matured, more spores will be released from the stem.
The spores, no larger than a speck of dust, fall to the ground and create a “killing zone” of about 10 feet. Healthy ants who wander into this zone are doomed, as spores will likely attach. This insidious fungus has the power to wipe out entire colonies of ants, giving new meaning to the lyrics “the ants go marching one by one.”
As eerie and terrifying as this scientific phenomenon is, we’re glad to report that it does not pose a threat to humans. Thankfully, our bodies are much better than ant bodies in attacking pathogens.
Experiencing an apocalypse of pests in your backyard? Contact your local Mosquito Squad today!