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zombie ant in Sapo National Park, Liberia
A zombie ant in Sapo National Park, Liberia © Andrei Daniel Mihalca (Photographer of the Year 2018 entry)

You may be mistaken to believe that the Force is only found out in a galaxy far, far away, but in actual fact you can find it right here in nature. Next time you’re in a tropical rainforest, take a look under a leaf close to the ground and you may find a zombie ant, clinging to life while a deadly parasitic fungus uses mind-control to slowly feed off it and grow.

Zombie ants may sound like something out of a sci-fi thriller, but they do exist, and the culprit that uses it’s own dark version of the Force is the deadly Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – an insect-pathogenising fungus.

The parasitic fungus infects mainly one variety of ant – the carpenter ant – where its spores are picked up by the ant on the rainforest floor. (Normally the ants are located higher in the canopy, but sometimes they deviate from the normal trail and fall to the floor). Once infected, the fungus uses its powers to have the ant ascend the nearest plant stem where it settles under a leaf (or attaches to the stem itself) that is around 25cm off the ground – the ideal zone where the temperature and humidity allow the fungus to grow.

With the ant’s mandibles permanently locked onto the leaf (thanks to the fungus mind-control), the fungus will grow and feed off the ant’s non-vital organs. Eventually the ant dies and the fungus sends out a stalk through the ant’s head where fresh spores are released allowing for more ants to become infected.

Interestingly, it was only until recently that studies revealed how this parasitic fungus actually takes control of an ant. Initially it was thought to go for the brain, controlling the ant’s actions while feeding off its non-vital organs. However, it has now been discovered that the fungus actually infects the ant’s muscles and incredibly leaves the brain untouched. This means that the ant is still technically conscious of what is going on, but it cannot move as the fungus has control.

Now if that isn’t a horror story of minuscule proportions we don’t know what is!

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