Ants kick major butt carrying thousands of times their size and making bridges of themselves across rivers. But they are not invincible, especially when you see a version of them that go off-script and leave their colonies to become zombie ants. They've been mentioned about before, but new evidence has shown that the way they become these bizarre insects is much more diabolical than we thought.
That's when the parasite fungus gets into something out of a horror movie. It devours the ant's brain then makes a long stalk pop from its head. The stalk is filled with fungal spores ready to come down on other ants, since the ant most likely walks in the path as the rest of the colony.
What's scarier about the Cordyceps fungus is that it doesn't discriminate. There are specific species ready to infect and make puppets out of any insect (the one for the ants is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis). This grasshopper took leaps and bounds into its gruesome death via Cordyceps infection.
This fungus was discovered a while back in 1859, but the way it controls the mind of an ant is still unclear. But recent evidence is showing that there might be a very different way to how the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis does its evil work. It might be something even more controlling.
Scientists long thought that the fungus altered a bug's brain in a way that forced it to move. But a new discovery showed that the fungus had taken complete control of the body. In a new study, they found the bodies of ants with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis cells spread to the abdomen, legs, and head.
One interesting detail is that there is some in its head, but not in the ant's actual brain. That throws out the established idea of a mind-controlled ant previously thought. But that also means there's the scary thought that the ant is conscious while they body is completely hijacked by the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.
The study that discovered this disturbing new development was performed in a lab this August. Researchers were investigating to see how social insects act when infected cadavers are introduced into their societies. They found that the ants were surprisingly good at getting rid of them in order to stop the spread of disease.
Researchers used advanced tools such as precise electron microscopy and 3D reconstructions afterward. It was with 3D modeling that they could figure out how the fungal networks around muscle fibers could look like. In this image, the yellow part represents the fungal cells surrounded the muscle fibers controlling the very-important mandible abductor muscle needed to clamp down for the final spot.
In a deeper close-up you can see the proof of how much the ant's brain is separated from the fungus. The green is the ant's brain, while the nearby fungus is in red. As you can see, while there are a few connections here and there, it's nowhere near at the same level as it is with the muscle fibers.
The fungus could not be taking over the brain as a shortcut of sorts. It might also be that the fungus does this to keep the brain alive as long as possible. That way it can do the final biting act while keeping it nice and juicy for the end when it has to start feeding off it for growth.
Another reason why the fungus might need that brain intact is that it still needs it to take it to the best area to infect other ants. The fungus on their own can't fight back against the colony's defense or climate, so they need the ant's "help." They believe that the fungus might be producing a compound that is affecting the behavior of the ant in order to make this happen.
The researchers are still not sure at the level of control Ophiocordyceps unilateralis really has over the ant. They'll be more studies to find the true reason as to why the fungus is protecting the brain. What's clear is that this dark way of mind control has gotten even more messed up.