Look out! Here comes the zombie apocalypse!
But they’re not after you. The zombies are coming to attack ants, in four different ways.
When Fungi Attack
One way ants turn into zombies is through a fungus which gives ants that peculiar stumbling, staggering zombie walk.
Infected ants, instead of returning to the canopy where they live, go down the leaves closer to the ground. They bite a leaf with a death grip, leaving the fungus in a perfect place to grow and reproduce.
In pop culture, zombies are often created through an infection. So are ant zombies. A particular kind of virus will invade an ant and make its gaster (the ant’s butt) turn red like a delicious, ripe berry. Birds, which don’t eat ants, come eat the infected berry-butts and then spread the parasite through the forest in their feces.
Like the fungi attack we saw earlier, another fungus takes control of an ant’s mind and body. The fungus attaches to the ant and makes its way to the ant’s brain, where it make chemicals to change how the ant perceives pheromones. The changes make the ant climb to the top of a plant and chomp down in a final death grip. The fungus eats the ant’s brain, then sprouts from the ant’s head, ready to spread throughout the forest.
Just a Fluke
A fluke (a kind of flatworm parasite) takes a more complicated route to turn ants into zombies.
The adult fluke lives inside a grazing animal–like a cow. It lays eggs there, which get passed out through the animal’s stool.
Snails then eat the egg-filled stool and become infected. The parasite reproduces in the snail, gets coated in slime, and is left behind in the snail’s slime trail.
Ants bring the slime home to their nests to eat, where they become infected by the parasite, which gets into their nervous tissue and changes their behavior.
In the mornings and evenings–when animals like cows are grazing–the ant, contrary to its normal behavior, crawls to the top of a blade of grass and hang out there. likely to be eaten. But if it’s not eaten, the ant goes home and acts normal until it’s grazing time again.
When the ant is eaten, the fluke happily lives in the grazing animal and produces eggs, starting the cycle over again.
The phorid fly, while it doesn’t turn ants into zombies, eats ant’s brains, a delicacy we all know zombies love.
This fly lays eggs in a fire ant. The larvae get into the ant’s head–literally–and start eating the ant’s brain. The fire ant eventually gets decapitated when the larvae turns into a fly.
Fire ants–which are vicious and usually seem incapable of fear–will cower in their mounds if phorid flies are around, eventually starving to death.
Ants, whether they turn into zombies or not, are fascinating creatures. Watch them in an ant farm or ant hill.