I can still remember that giddy feeling I had seven years ago, when I first read about the “zombie ant.” The story was gruesome and fascinating, and it was everywhere. Even friends and family who aren’t so interested in science knew the basics: in a tropical forest somewhere there’s a fungus that infects an ant and somehow takes control of the ant’s brain, forcing it to leave its colony, crawl up a big leaf, bite down and wait for the sweet relief of death. A grotesque stalk then sprouts from the poor creature’s head, from which fungal spores rain down to infect a new batch of ants.
The problem is, it doesn’t happen quite like that. David Hughes , the Penn State University entomologist who reported his extensive field observations of the fungus/ant interactions in BMC Ecology , which caused much excitement back in 2011, has continued to study the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unliateralis, and its carpenter ant host, Camponotus leonardi.
In late 2017, Hughes and his colleagues published an article in PNAS in which they used sophisticated microscopy and image-processing techniques to describe in great detail how the fungus invades various parts of the ant’s body including muscles in its legs and head.
Although Hughes’s earlier BMC Ecology paper showed fungus in the head of an ant, the new study reveals that the fungus never actually enters the brain.
To me, the new finding somehow made the fungus’ control over the ant even more baffling. What exactly was going on?
To find out, I spoke with Hughes and his graduate student Maridel Fredericksen.