Is there anything more sinister than a zombie…?
Oh yes, there is.
A zombie insect.
Deep in the rainforests of Brazil, there exists a type of fungus called Cordyceps (Latin name Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) which has the power to take over insects and control their minds – infecting the poor sods’ bodies and making them unwitting accomplices in their tawdry reproductive schemes.
Hanging on the underside of a leaf, you might spot a leaf cutting ant with its massive jaws clamped tight and holding it into place.
Weird behaviour for a leaf cutting ant you might say… shouldn’t it be busy… I dunno cutting leaves and suchlike.
The dreadful truth is that although the ant’s brain is still functioning, its entire body has become a puppet for the Cordyceps fungi – it’s a dead ant walking.
When the fungus first enters its host, it exists as single cells that float around the ant’s bloodstream, rapidly producing new copies of itself which then begin to join up and work together, physically connecting with tube like structures which allow it to share nutrients.
In a sense the microscopic cells join forces, ironically much like a colony of ants, to create a super organism and take over the host’s body.
Like all good parasites, it avoids killing the host, until its work is done.
The Cordyceps invades the insect’s muscles and begins to control it like a puppet. Unpleasantly, the ant’s brain remains intact, leaving it conscious (in its own ant-like way) of the unfolding horror.
Once an infection is underway, it is thought that the neurons in the ant’s body—the ones that give its brain control over its muscles—start to die. The fungus takes over, releasing chemicals that force the muscles to contract.
Over the course of a week, it forces the insect to leave the safety of the nest and climb the nearest plant, and lock itself into place on the stem. The fungus then sends a long stalk through the ants head which grows into a capsule full of spores – which can then rain down on the nest below it, infecting other unfortunate insects in turn. I’ve never really wanted to be an ant, leaf-cutting or otherwise.
But Cordyceps has really helped me make my mind up.