Newly Discovered Fungi Turn Ants Into Zombies and Use Them to Breed

The newly discovered fungi cause ants to behave in self-destructive ways. Robb Hannawacker/Flickr

Mushrooms have always been a risky dinner menu option: Sure, plenty of them are delicious, but some are deadly. Ants stumbling on the wrong type of fungus can meet an even grimmer fate: These organisms can take control of the insects, forcing them to kill themselves. And scientists have just identified another 15 fungi with this gruesome talent.

They report on the discoveries in a new paper published in the journal Studies in Mycology (mycology is the study of fungi). The authors collected their specimens, which all belong to a general category of fungi called Ophiocordyceps, at field sites in the United States, Japan, Australia, Brazil and Colombia.

Each fungus targets a different species of ant, but with the same basic end result: The ants end up dead, typically with their jaws clamped around a leaf, a spine, or another plant part. That's a carefully calculated maneuver by the fungus, which wants its ant carrier to end up somewhere it can thrive and reproduce.

"Besides their beauty, it's striking how these fungi evolved and are so well adapted morphologically and ecologically to infect their hosts," first author João Araújo, a fungal scientist at Pennsylvania State University told New Scientist.

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The ants the scientists found were coated in white or brown fuzz, immediately signaling that something was wrong. Some had also been partly dismembered by other ants—the scientists aren't sure whether that would have kept their cohorts healthier or made the infection more likely to spread.

In each case, the team collected the samples, then ran genetic analysis on the fungus to confirm each was really a new species. Finally, they described each and gave it a name. One is even named for the wife of one of the co-authors—because there's nothing quite so romantic as a zombie-ant fungus.