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Zombie Ants and Killer Fungus 125

Posted by samzenpus
from the level-1-random-encounter dept.
nibbles2004 writes "An article in the Guardian newspaper shows how parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control ants they infect, ultimately leading the ant to its death. The fungus controls the ant's movements to a suitable leaf and causes the ant to grip onto the leaf's central stem, allowing the fungus to spore, which will allow more ants to become infected."
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Zombie Ants and Killer Fungus

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  • by anethema (99553) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:14PM (#33295830) Homepage
    BBC Planet Earth shows the cordyceps fungus attacking some Bullet Ants in South America. It is incredible camera work showing the ant being forced to climb, and later a time lapse of the fruit body erupting from the ant's body. It is short but very well filmed, as is the case for the entire series.

    HIGHLY recommend watching this if you have any interest in nature.

    The cordyceps section is around 28 minutes into the "Jungle" episode. You won't be dissapointed.

    Actually I searched youtube and found an excert of this episide including the cordyceps on the ants. The cordyceps part starts about 4 minutes into this video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qabQZQQrGk

    I still recommend getting the blue-ray or at least dvd of this series, can't say enough good things about it in general.
  • by anethema (99553) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:26PM (#33295928) Homepage
    By the way having read the article better, it seems to imply the fungus actually is taking "over its brain and muscles" then killing the creature. In reality it is likely the fungus is making the ant feel more comfortable in this area or changing the way its pheremones tell it to go.

    The incredible thing though, is according to wikipedia: "The changes in the behavior of the infected ants are very specific and tuned for the benefit of the fungus. The ants generally clamp to a leaf's vein about 25 cm above the ground, on the northern side of the plant, in an environment with 94-95% humidity and temperatures between 20 -30 degrees C. "

    That is pretty damn specific, amazing so simple an organism can induce behavior that complex in an ant.
  • Re:I may be wrong... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:48PM (#33296062) Homepage Journal

    Its interesting because my nephew was diagnosed with fungal meningitis about 18 months ago. He was otherwise healthy, not immune deficient. He is 15, does well at school and plays sport. A scientist who works in the field told me that treatment for fungal infections is much harder than for bacteria because more things which kill fungus, also kill us.

    So far I haven't seen any fungus induced behavior change in my nephew, apart from the normal effects of a brain infection.

  • Re:I may be wrong... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by blair1q (305137) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @08:58PM (#33296124) Journal

    And you probably won't.

    Ant brains are very tiny, and the control and regulation mechanisms in them are simple. Human brains are immense, complex, and very hard to control. A fungus could make it fuzzy or twitchy, but to actually alter a behavior to its own ends is unlikely times ten to the fifteenth power.

    There are about 1.5 million kinds of fungi, many of which will infect humans (basically move in and treat us like a tree root). They can live in us, but they don't particularly get anything out of us evolutionarily until we die and they can become spores as our corpses dessicate. Which they're content to wait for, as long as we haven't developed anything to kill them outright that might result in superiority of mutations that (a) don't die from our medicine and (b) make us reject medicine entirely. (Maybe scientologists and christian fundamentalists have a brain fungus. It would explain a lot.)

    The really interesting thing is that while the spores are contagious (it's how we get infected), the living form of the fungi are generally not. So your nephew most likely can't infect anyone by contact.

  • X-Files (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thestudio_bob (894258) on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:06PM (#33296172)
    This was the bases of an X-Files episode as well, except it was in humans, not in ants.
  • Re:Futurama (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rwa2 (4391) * on Wednesday August 18, 2010 @09:19PM (#33296256) Homepage Journal

    Not to mention
    Futurama - Season 3 Ep. 4 Parasites Lost
    Though in that case, Fry got quite a lot of upgrades from his intestinal colony.

  • Re:Bad summary (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2010 @05:18AM (#33298918)

    Fungi are very interesting in more ways than one.. In addition to these mind controlling abilities, it seems they can use gamma radiation in similar ways than plants do photosynthesis with light. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiotrophic_fungus

    Now, as gamma radiation can penetrate very deep in all kinds of material, what organism could be better suited for outer space and life inside asteroids than fungi? Add to that all those problems with classification of them as either animals or plants.. Maybe fungi isn't from earth originally?

  • Mammalian example (Score:3, Interesting)

    by treeves (963993) on Thursday August 19, 2010 @02:35PM (#33304998) Homepage Journal

    Apparently, toxoplasmosis [wikipedia.org] causes infected rodents to *stop fearing* and avoiding the smell of cat urine, causing the rodents to be more likely to be eaten by cats, completing the cycle by getting the toxoplasma back into cats where they can reproduce. (Rats eat cat turds in the other side of the cycle).
    Sorry if you're eating while reading this!
    Toxoplasmosis is the reason why pregnant women should not clean out cat litter boxes. It can cause a serious infection in the unborn or newborn baby.
    Also, it may cause infected humans to engage in more risky behavior, like driving behavior that leads to increased car accidents. (Or even schizophrenia?)
    Heard about it on NPR's Radiolab. Cool show. Get the podcasts.

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