Not by Fire, Nor by Ice, but by Fungus

Not by Fire, Nor by Ice, but by Fungus

Ants zombified by mushrooms - and not in the fun way

It seems the zombies that end our world will evolve not from bacteria or viruses, but from fungi. Four newly discovered species of fungus in the Brazillian rainforest reproduce by infecting ants and taking over their brains. They force their victims to travel to an ideal location for spreading spores, then kill them and grow out of their dead bodies. 

This is it. This is how it ends.

Scientists discovered these new species when they noticed fungus growing from the heads of apparently still-living ants. It was previously believed there was only one species of zombie fungus, but scientists later discovered that four different species reproduce similarly. Apparently, each species has adapted to better invade a particular species of ant. Other insects, like flies and crickets, can also be infected by the fungi. 

This is the kind of stuff that just baffles me about nature. Evolution is supposed to work on a trial-and-error basis, and yet you have strands of fungus "learning" how an ant's nervous system works well enough to take full control of it. I could understand it if the bugs just died upon infection, but instead they are being steered by an organism in a completely different kingdom. How on earth does that happen? 

I suppose vastly different organisms have evolved side-by-side before. After all, we've got pounds of bacteria hanging out inside of our bodies. But they've evolved to help us out, and they take up residence in our bowels, which are much simpler than brains. The digestive system is the unifying biological component of animal life, so it makes sense that something like bacteria would figure it out eventually. There's something so oddly specific about zombie fungus, something so unlikely. It's unsettling. 

Luckily, human brains are a shade more complicated than those of insects. And just because something is newly discovered doesn't mean it's a new phenomenon. Insects and fungus have been around for quite a while. They've had plenty of time to get to know each other very intimately. I just find it troubling that nature when nature comes up with sick stuff like this. Also troubling is the speculation that there may be thousands of species of zombie fungus all over the planet--and the excitement to study them all that scientists have expressed.  "We need to ramp up sampling—especially given the perilous state of the environment," said entomologist David Hughes, who is leading the study on the fungi. All I can say is if the rainforest is destroyed by the corporate world, the zombie ants won't be the first thing I'll miss. 

(via National Geographic)