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How Ants Turn Into Zombies

Photo of an ant.

Some ants in the Amazon become infected with a fungus. Once infected, the ant starts searching for the ideal location for the fungus to grow. (Alex Wild, Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have found zombie ants in the Brazilian rainforests.

The ants are infected by a fungus. In fact, scientists have just found four new species of the zombie‑creating fungus, Ophiocordyceps.

The fungus is what turns the ants into zombies. Fungi produce little seed‑like particles called spores. If an ant gets infected by one, the fungus hijacks its brain. Instead of doing its normal chores, the ant starts searching for the ideal location for the fungus to grow.

Scientists have found that infected ants go to specific locations: beneath leaves on the north sides of plants, about ten inches above the ground, in 94 to 95 percent humidity, and at 77 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures.

Experiments have shown that if infected ants are moved from those locations, the fungus won’t develop. Once in ideal locations, the ants bite down on the leaf’s vein and the fungus grows hyphae, or fungal threads, throughout their bodies.

When the fungus is large enough, it sends up a reproductive shoot called a fruiting body. The ant looks like it has a horn or antlers growing out of its head.  New spores rain down from the fruiting body and infect more ants.

It’s unlikely that anyone would see such a sight in the United States, since the fungus only grows in the tropics.

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