Real-Life Zombies in Animal World: Part 1

   

Zombies are real, not in the human world like how it’s shown in movies but in the animal world. Zombies in this article are Ants. Some of you may have heard about the story of a zombified ant but I bet the majority haven’t. We hate ants for the inconvenience they create especially in the kitchen, but who thought some of them are fated to a sad end.

The main culprit of turning ants to zombies is a parasite. For those who don’t know what a parasite is, it’s an organism that lives in or on another creature and it draws nutrients from the living host. Simply, they live off the host. A parasite may be a fungus, a worm, or another tiny animal.

In this case, the parasite is a fungus, a species of Ophiocordyceps. It is also known as the Zombie ant fungus. It hijacks the nervous system of the ant to control its behaviour in unusual ways that are favourable to the fungus’s reproduction process. 

The image shows whole leaf with the dense surrounding vegetation in the background.
Image Credit: David P. Hughes, Maj-Britt Pontoppidan,Wikipedia
Image Credit: David P. Hughes, Maj-Britt Pontoppidan,Wikipedia

When ants come in to contact with the fungus, they aren’t zombified instantly, the process takes three to nine days. According to David Hughes, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University, infected ants are described as chimeras: part ant and part fungus.

Until fully zombified, ants perform their usual tasks such as collecting food, defending the nest against enemies, and feeding and caring for their young and when fully zombified they lose their control over their own body. 

When an ant loses its control, the fungus uses chemical signals to force it to leave its nest and directs it to stroll aimlessly unlike normal ants. Then, the fungus compels the ant to bite on a leaf which is called a “Death Grip”. The ant is unable to release the leaf from its grip even after its death. This creates a steady ground for the fungus to grow outside the ant’s body. Zombie ant is poisoned to death at this stage. The fungus sprouts from the top of the ant’s head and produces spores to grab more victims to face the same destiny. 

What’s more fascinating is that zombie ants take their death grip at the same time at high noon. Even though ants take their last grip at noon, the fungus waits until sunset to reproduce as they prefer a cooler environment for the reproductive process.

When infected, an ant is doomed to die in two to three weeks. 

Ants are not the only animals that go thought this horrid experience. There are more. My next article will be about other animals who face the same destiny as ants, so keep in touch with us for Real-Life Zombies in Animal World: Part 2

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