Zombie-Making Ant Fungus Is Picky Eater

CC BY 2.0. Hughes Lab, Penn State

Zombies exist, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. They're just not the kind with guts hanging out and a ravenous taste for brains - well, human brains that is. Instead, they come in ant-form.

Back in 2011, we wrote about this phenomenon. Basically, a fungus releases chemicals into an ants' brain and controls its mind. It forces the ant to leave its duties, go to the underside of a leaf or branch, and clamp down to await its death by fungus. Then a few days later, the fungus releases spores from a stalk that extends from the dead ants' brain to find a new victim.

Knowledge of this fungus has been around since the 1800s. Over the years, scientists have learned that there are many species of fungi that can 'zombify' ants. Their latest finding is that the fungi are picky eaters - they don't just invade the brain of any old ant, it has to be the right one.

Charissa de Bekker, from Pennsylvania State University, and a team of scientists injected fungus into four ant species - two that had been known to be infected by the fungus and two that had not. The fungus killed 3 of the 4 species. It was also able to identify different species based on their brain and change the composition of its chemical release.

"The theory is that every species of ant has its own species of fungi that it gets infected by," de Bekker told Live Science. "There's probably going to be the whole mixture of chemicals that has to be there in the right amounts, working together to manipulate the ants' behaviors."

Chemical cocktails don't work in the same way from one ant species to the next, so the fungus has to find the right host to survive and reproduce.

"It is impressive that these fungi seem to 'know' when they are beside the brain of their regular host and behave accordingly," de Bekker said in a press release.