October 7, 2021 · Uncategorized

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What on Earth is a ‘Zombie Ant?’ The story is an intriguing one that involves a complicated relationship between a group of fungi and invertebrates. Predatory fungi are life forms that infect and kill their hosts in the process of completing their life cycle. Hosts include a wide variety of invertebrates from spiders and ants to moths and grasshoppers. A given fungal species tends to be host specific, infecting a single species or a related group of species. In the past, some have labeled these life forms ‘parasitic fungi;’ however, parasitic implies that the host survives, which is not the case with these fungi. In this context, ‘parasitoid fungi’ might be a better term because the host’s fate is death. The collective term for these fungi in academic circles is ‘entomopathogenic fungi’ or EF. EF are not uncommon in the upper Amazon Basin; some genera (eg, Cordyceps, Ophiocordyceps, etc. ) are reasonably common within these forests. One example of EF can be observed in a group of species that infect ants. Here is how it works: in the process of gas exchange, an ant takes in a spore from a predatory fungus that is specific to ants – possibly even specific to that particular ant species. As the fungus begins to develop within the ant, it prepares for its reproductive stage. Preparation by the fungus might take days to weeks depending on the host and fungal species involved. The first sign that the fungus is prepared to reproduce: it controls the ant’s behavior. The ant is driven to climb higher and higher in the forest canopy – not for hunger, finding a mate, or in search of a hiding place. Rather, the fungus is at the helm, controlling the behavior of the ant for its own benefit. The EM takes control and gets the ant to climb to a height and bite down on something in the environment (to secure the body of the ant). Some literature suggests that the fungus releases a toxin that kills the ant on the spot, other sources suggest that the invertebrates die as they are consumed by the fungus and through the process of mushroom production. Regardless, the next step for the fungus is the production of fruiting bodies (mushrooms) that erupt from the body of the ant. It is this stage where the host bodies are used as resources to produce the mushrooms. Little is left of the host body, save for the exoskeletons (depicted in the images here). This is why I call the dried corpses left behind from these events ‘infected mummies.’ Spores are carried away on canopy breezes, infecting new hosts with a much greater dispersal ability than if the ant had died near or on the forest floor. This was the reason for the behavioral control of the ant and of many other host species. Not surprisingly, the biochemistry of host control by the fungus is the subject of much academic research. Owing to the behavioral control of the ant by the fungus, the term for this particular association has been dubbed the ‘zombie ant phenomenon’ by the media. Lucky for people, these fungi are only known to infect invertebrates. But I seem to recall an X-Files episode where they played off of this biology and had it infect humans. For my mycologist friends out there, after these fungi kill the invertebrate host, one or more fruiting bodies sprout from the invertebrate’s exoskeleton (stromatic clavae), and spores (ascospores) are swept away on air currents to infect new hosts. Stroma are prominent, erect, and mostly clavate with a distinct fertile apical portion and a fertile stipe according to The Atlas of Entomopathogenic Fungi (by Samson, Evans and Latgé, 1988-Springer-Verlag).” For the rest of my biology oriented friends out there who want to know more, I suggest reading the same book. These images depict infected invertebrates from Amazonian Peru.

A grasshopper or locust (Acrididae) with the fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi sprouted from the corpse. The fungus is Beauveria acridophila or Pionacris sp. Thank you João Araújo and Tatiana Sanjuan for ID assistance.
Entomopathogenic Fungi, Ophiocordyceps blattarioides, Explorama Lodge at Yanamono, Loreto, Peru, November 2019
Roach killed by entomopathogenic fungi – possibly a species of Ophiocordyceps.
Entomopathogenic fungi (Ophiocordyceps curculionum) on a weevil, Amazonian Peru, 2019.
Entomopathogenic fungi (Ophiocordyceps curculionum) on a weevil, Amazonian Peru, 2019.
Entomopathogenic fungi (Ophiocordyceps curculionum) on a weevil, Amazonian Peru, 2019.
An Entomopathogenic fungi (Ophiocordyceps curculionum group) on a weevil, Amazonian Peru, 2019.
A parasitoid fungi, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, on Ant along the ACTS Canopy Walkway, Loreto, Peru.
Ophiocordyceps kniphofioides and ant, Explorama Lodge at Yanamono, Loreto, Peru, November 2019
Entomopathogenic fungus, Ophiocordyceps diabolica, on an ant, Ceiba Tops, Amazon River, Loreto, Peru, October 2019
An ant with the fruiting body of an entomopathogenic fungi sprouted from the corpse (Cordyceps doiana {should be Ophiocordyceps, but the transfer was not officially made yet}) – thank you João Araújo !!!
An ant corpse, the insect was killed by entomopathogenic fungi
A butterfly (Lepidoptera) with the fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi (Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l.) sprouting from the corpse.
A moth (Lepidoptera) with the fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi (Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l.) sprouting from the corpse.
As far as I can tell, the invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera). The fungus is Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l.
As far as I can tell, the invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera). The fungus is Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l.
The invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Arctiinae: Pseudophaloe cerealia). The corpse has fruiting bodies sprouted from it by an entomopathogenic fungus (Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l.). Thank you João Araújo!
As far as I can tell, the invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera). The fungus is Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l. Thank you João Araújo!
As far as I can tell, the invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera). The fungus is Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l. Thank you João Araújo!
As far as I can tell, the invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera). The fungus is Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l. Thank you João Araújo!
As far as I can tell, the invertebrate host here is a moth (Lepidoptera). The fungus is Akanthomyces aculeatus s.l. Thank you João Araújo!
The invertebrate host here is a dipteran. The fungi is a species from the Ophiocordyceps dipterigena group. Thank you João Araújo for ID assistance!
The invertebrate host here is a dipteran. The fungi is a species from the Ophiocordyceps dipterigena group. Thank you João Araújo for ID assistance!
The invertebrate host here is a dipteran. The fungi is a species from the Ophiocordyceps dipterigena group. Thank you João Araújo for ID assistance!
An unidentified insect corpse with fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi, Loreto, Peru
A spider corpse with fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi (possibly Torubiella sp.). Thank you Larry Evans for ID assistance.
A spider corpse with fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi.
A spider corpse with fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi (possibly Ophiocordyceps engleriana).
A spider corpse with fruiting bodies of an entomopathogenic fungi (possibly Gibellula sp.).
Red-Dotted Planthopper (Lystra lanata), Rio Momon, Loreto, Peru. I believe that this is a mimic of enotomopathogenic fungi.
Fungus mimicing reduviid nymph, Rio Sucusari, Loreto, Peru, November 2015. I believe this may be a mimic of entomopathogenic fungi.
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