Subscribe up for interesting CNN Theory of financial science. Explore the universe with news about exciting discoveries, scientific advances and more.
Around the world, a parasitic fungus is turning ants into “zombies.”
The fungus looks like something out of a horror movie: The organism hijacks the body and brain of its host ant, controlling the mind by leaving the nest and climbing up a nearby tree.
There, the infected ant clamps around the leaf, hanging above the forest floor, and dies in matter of days as the fungus digests it. Breaking through the host’s body, the fungus then sends down a shower of spores to infect the ant’s breeding prey.
Scientifically, in the genus Ophiocordyceps, there are more than two dozen species of zombie, ant fungus groups that have been populated, including Florida, Brazil and Japan; Scientists suspect that each of the dozens of ant species affected has its own study of Ophiocordyceps.
So far, scientists have identified the molecular mechanism of the parasitic interaction between the fungus and the ant, which is the basis of human manipulation, according to a 2020 study. However, exactly how these parasites act systematically is unclear.
Now scientists have shown that a fungus attacking ants can be infected with their own fungal parasites, which could help to control ant zombification, according to a new study.
Dr João Araújo, assistant curator of mycology at the New York Botanical Garden, has been trekking through tropical forests in search of zombie ants for more than a decade. Over the years, he noticed something new: a white fungus growing on top of a zombie ant fungus.
Other scientists have observed the mystery of the fungus for decades, but Araújo and his colleagues decided to become the first scientists to systematically dig into the matter, a strain of zombie ants from Florida. The researchers recorded the physical structure of the fungus growing on the zombie ant fungus and followed their DNA in a study published November 9 in the journal Persoonia.
In doing so, the team discovered two new types of fungi previously unknown to science.
“We realized that there are two different strains of fungi, a new strain of fungi, and one species of zombie ant fungus in Florida,” said Araújo, lead author of the study.
Both fungi are newly discovered in their own genus. One of the new fungi, Niveomyces coronatus, is dressed in a zombie ant fungus of any color, whose name (“niveo”) comes from the Latin for “snow.” Another new fungus, Torrubiellomyces zombiae, is more difficult to spot: tiny black blobs like fleas, according to Araújo.
Fungus fungi attacked by zombie ants fungus do not zombify their host, but feed on its tissues and seem to injure them. “Every time we see these new species that are born in a mushroom, it looks like the mushroom is pretty much crushed, actually consumed by this other mushroom,” Araújo said.
“In some cases, Ophiocordyceps castrates (the zombie-making fungus) so that it can no longer emit spores, then it grows and then consumes the entire fungus.” Since Niveomyces and Torrubielomyces are so new to science, it is not yet clear how much of an effect they have on zombie ant fungal populations overall.
These new types of parasites have been officially described as infecting the zombie ant fungus for the first time, but researchers suspect there may be others among them. “I think it’s more common than we think. Parasitism is a super profitable lifestyle,” said senior study author Dr. Charissa de Bekker, an assistant professor at the University of Traje in the Netherlands. “It’s the most dominant lifestyle on the planet.”
Moreover, he says, parasites in general and parasitic fungi in particular are poorly studied. “The fact that we had to call two new species tells you how little we know about this part of the fungal tree of life,” de Bekkero said.
By deepening our understanding of the zombie ant fungus, the new research could have applications that go beyond the study of fungi, said Dr. Carolyn Elya, a postdoctoral fellow in organismal and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. She was not interested.
“Ophiocordyceps basically became an expert neuroscientist over time. It knows exactly what buttons to push and how to make the ant do what it wants,” he said. “By learning how to figure out how to solve this problem, we can gain insight into our more general goal of investigating how brains work or create behavior.”
#mystery #parasite #zombie #ant #fungus #identified #scientists #Snoring