Meet the enemy of killer fungus that turns ants into zombies

One of most famous fungi in the world is the “zombie ant fungus”. It takes over the mind of an ant, causing it to climb up a branch and cling to the underside of a leaf before mummification. Once locked in place, the mushroom-like fruiting body of the cordyceps sprouts from the ant and eventually releases its spores.

This ant-killing fungus goes by the scientific name Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and its modus operandi has made it something of a celebrity – inspiring an episode of the X files, the video game The Last of Us and even a Pokémon character.

This fame might make it seem there is just one fungus that can create such a nightmare. But in fact there are many species of them, and zombifying ants is not their only speciality.

In just the Ophiocordyceps genus there are more than 100 species. Many insects can fall under their spell – beetles, caterpillars, cicada and dragonflies are all fair game. There is fossil evidence indicating that this has been going on for more than 40m years. But while these fungi are master body-snatchers, they don’t always get everything to themselves. Sometimes two of these fungi can infect the same ant.

Last month scientists in Japan studying these fungi started noticing that some zombified ants were afflicted with two distinct forms of cordyceps fungi. Both fungi were found sprouting from dead ants that had their mandibles clamped tightly around a branch in the typical zombie-ant pose. One fungus species, O. pulvinata, produces a bulbous fruiting body that juts from the back of the ant’s head. The other, O. sessilis, covers the ant’s body in spiny fruiting bodies…




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