It might seem like something out of a scary movie, but Zombie Ants really do exist. These so-called zombie ants are carpenter ants that have been infected with a parasitical fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which alters their behavior. The carpenter ants become “zombies” after the fungus invades their bodies and takes control of their brain. Usually these zombie ants are only found in tropical areas like Brazil, Africa and Thailand.
Like other fungi, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis targets a specific host series – in this case, carpenter ants. The fungus’s spores enter the body of the insect and take over the ant’s brain. The fungus finds these ants as they are crawling around on forest floors and tree canopies looking for food. Once infected with the fungus, the ants essentially march to their death – hence the name “Zombie Ants.” Once infected with the zombie fungus, the ants climb a small tree, shrub, or other plant to about the height of one foot. Next, the fungus causes the ants to go onto a leaf, crawl to the underside of the leaf, and with their strong jaws attach themselves to the main leaf rib. The fungus then kills the ant and continues to grow as it invades the ant’s body. Shortly after the ant attaches to the leaf, and after the ant is dead, the fungus produces fruiting bodies from the ant’s head that rupture – releasing the spores. Those fungal spores fall to the forest floor and invade other ants.
The zombie ant fungus has been known to destroy entire ant colonies. Some ants have evolved the ability to sense the that a member of the colony has been infected with the zombie plague and will carry the dying ant far away to protect the colony from spore exposure.
For more information about ants and other bugs, view our insect guide.