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[KIDS] The Fungus that Turns Ants into Zombies

Ants as Zombies | Readorium

By David P. Hughes, Maj-Britt Pontoppidan –, CC BY 2.5,

Halloween is around the corner! So let’s talk about zombies! Did you know that zombies are real? Well, not exactly, but certain organisms (living things) in nature behave just like mind-controlling zombies from movies! Let’s take a closer look at one of them.

Say you’re an ant in the Brazilian rainforest. You’re collecting food for your colony and minding your own business. You walk under a leaf and see a friend hanging from a leaf. No wait, your ant friend is actually dead, and a weird stalk is growing out of his head! It’s  a long stalk with a puffy ball at the end. Uh-oh. Did a strange powder just rain down from it? Right onto you?

If you’re an ant and you’re ever in that situation, well… good luck! Because that powder is actually made of spores of a fungus called Ophiocordyceps. “Spores” are tiny particles of fungus that can grow into new fungi. You can sort of think of them as “fungus eggs” (though scientifically speaking, they’re not actual eggs). Ophiocordyceps is a parasite, meaning that it grows on another living creature. A parasite harms its host creature and uses it to survive.

Now that you’re covered in Ophiocordyceps spores, each spore is sprouting “hyphae”, tentacle-like growths that have started burrowing into your ant body. The spore is also making chemicals to help the hyphae break through your armor.

The fungus then grows inside your body. It makes toxins (poisons) to control your ant brain, just like a zombie. The fungus basically mind-controls you, and makes you travel to a very specific spot. Usually this is the bottom of a leaf. The fungus makes you bite down with your strong jaws and hang onto to the leaf. For how long? Well, until you basically die, and then the fungus grows a stalk inside your body that bursts out of you. The stalk can then rain down spores on more ants down below.

Yay! Zombie ants! Here’s a video about them!

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