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Fungus Takes Over To Kill

Outstanding survival capabilities of fungi has been demonstrated time and time again. An article in The Guardian reports on amazing findings by a group of scientists led by David Hughes at Harvard University. A fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, can infect ants, manipulate their behavior, turns them into zombies and makes them stagger to their death to spread on!

fungus takes over
A carpenter ant (Camponotus leonardi) whose body has been consumed by the fungus Ophiocordyceps.
Photograph: David P Hughes

The oldest evidence of the fungus was  found on the leaves of plants that grew in Messel, near Darmstadt in Germany, 48 million years ago.

The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas.

The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

The fungus grows inside the ants and releases chemicals that affect their behavior. Some ants leave the colony and wander off to find fresh leaves on their own, while others fall from their tree-top havens on to leaves nearer the ground.

The final stage of the parasitic death sentence is the most macabre. In their last hours, infected ants move towards the underside of the leaf they are on and lock their mandibles in a “death grip” around the central vein, immobilizing themselves and locking the fungus in position.

“This can happen en masse. You can find whole graveyards with 20 or 30 ants in a square meter. Each time, they are on leaves that are a particular height off the ground and they have bitten into the main vein before dying,” said David Hughes at Harvard University.

The fungus cannot grow high up in the canopy or on the forest floor, but infected ants often die on leaves midway between the two, where the humidity and temperature suit the fungus. Once an ant has died, the fungus sprouts from its head and produces a pod of spores, which are fired at night on to the forest floor, where they can infect other ants.

Totally amazing…

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