Posts Tagged ‘zombie ants’


Brad Pitt in World War Z (2013)   Image Credit: Paramount Pictures

Back in March 2012, I wrote a Strange Science blog about zombie ants and the Penn State biologist who studies them. Zombie ants are a creepy phenomenon of nature the biologist, David Hughes, along with his students, travels to the world’s rain forests to study and collect. This morning, at our weekly Millennium Café talk, Hughes was one of the speakers, a very entertaining speaker at that, despite the topic. We enjoyed a number of videos of odd behavior among zombie species and learned a little about how non-sentient fungi can do things that are so seemingly complex and intelligent. We also heard what it is like to disturb a wasp nest when you are holding on to a tree limb without a rope 60 feet above the forest floor. Not a good path to achieving tenure.

Hughes’ research has been featured in places like National Geographic and The New York Times, but the most unlikely of places for it to appear is in the new Brad Pitt movie, titled World War Z. The Z stands for zombie. Hughes is the science adviser for WWZ, and his zombies are quite a bit different from the usual shambling Night of the Living Dead variety. Hughes’ zombies are fast and swarm like, well, like zombie ants. You can watch the movie trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HcwTxRuq-uk


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zombie ant Hughes/NSF

Zombie ant credit: Hughes/NSF

David Hughes’ lab is in the new Millennium Science Complex, where I work. It’s a big building, with a wing devoted to materials science and another to life sciences, and I’ve never met David, who is an assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State. But I’ve been reading about his work that takes him to the rain forests of Brazil and other remote spots around the world to study carpenter ants. One of these days I hope to do a story on his work, though it is outside the scope of what I usually write.

The reason is, David studies zombie ants – normal worker ants that are taken over by a strange fungus that bends them to its will, like the zombies in night of the Living Dead or Jane Austen (You’ve seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, right?).

Somewhere in high school I must have missed the biology class on fungi, which, it turns out, are one of the three classes of life, along with plants and animals, and seem to lie somewhere between the two. Mushrooms, for instance, are fungi, but I wouldn’t expect a mushroom to control my mind. (Wait a minute, what about psychedelic magic mushrooms?) Hmmm.

Anyway, the ants live high up in the hot, dry canopy of the rain forest, which is not ideal for fungi, who prefer the cool, damp environs near the forest floor, but not exactly on the floor, where they can be washed away or eaten by creatures. No, they like it just nine to ten inches above the ground.

It’s a kind of never-ending cycle: a hapless carpenter ant wanders by and encounters the spoors of the fungus raining down onto the forest floor from nine or ten inches above. He ingests the spoors and makes his way back up to the colony while the spoors start to take over his nervous system. If he were to die inside the colony, the cleaning ants would immediately toss him out the door and down to the forest floor. Instead, the fungus takes over and walks him down to the favored location inches above the forest floor. Then, at noon, the zombie ant bites down on the underside of a leaf on the north/northwest side of the tree, clamps his jaw closed, and dies. The fungus sends long shoots out through the ant’s head, which releases spoors onto the floor below where another hapless worker ant is passing by.

I found this behavior on Mother Nature’s part extremely disconcerting. This kind of aggressive (and spookily intelligent) behavior on the part of a slime makes me nervous. Zombies are okay in late night movies and in spoofs of literature, but what does it say about zombies in the real world? What does it say about us? After all, our bodies are made up of 10 times more bacteria than of human cells. We’ve already been colonized by bacteria and our DNA invaded by viruses. I’m starting to feel a little itchy up above my forehead.

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