The Walking Dead Reality of Cordyceps

December 14, 2016

If you thought nature couldn't be any more brutal or terrifying, then you obviously haven't heard of cordyceps. This name is given to a group of fungi which has plagued insects (ants, spiders, moths, and butterflies) for millennia. Each parasitic fungus in the group specializes in only one species of insect, with devastatingly lethal results. Fossils have been found containing cordyceps from more than 48 million years ago and the fungus is a common ingredient for traditional Chinese medicine.

Over 80% of the world's insects live in jungles with ants making up a vast majority of those numbers. Though they are many, the ants face a microscopic and deadly enemy. When the spores from a specific fungi are either ingested or come into contact with an ant, it begins exhibiting very unusual behavior. After painfully scratching at its head the ant succumbs to the effects of the fungi. At this point, the fungi takes control of the ant's brain and body, forcing it to climb up the nearest plant or branch. Once high enough the zombie ant clamps onto the branch with its mandibles and dies. Over the next 3 weeks the fungus erupts from the head of the ant and grows. Once mature, spores are released and the process repeats itself.

Remember that ants are very clever and have had a very long time to understand how nature works. If another member of the colony finds an ant in the pre-erupted state, they will take the body far from the colony to save the other members. Fungi of this type have been known to decimate entire colonies, killing millions of ants in a short amount of time.

Lucky for you, you're not an insect and this type of fungus does not exist in relation to humans. "Behavioral manipulation is such a complex [characteristic] that it only occurs when there's a very close co-evolution between pathogen and host," said Charissa de Bekker, a molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University. However for out 6-legged friends, the threat is very real and the things of horror movies are more than just stories to keep them up at night.

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