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Are zombie ants real?

Zombies have become creatures in popular culture, many books, movies, and TV series. But they are also a factual reality that involves some very unusual behaviors. Ant researchers have observed that while typical, unaffected worker ants rarely left their ant trail when searching for food, zombie ants move about haphazardly, suffer convulsions, and are unable to find their way back to their colony’s nest.

What is a zombie ant?

A zombie ant is an ant that is infected with the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and is no longer in control of its body. Ants encounter these fungus spores as they are crawling around on the forest floors and trees searching for food. The ants become “zombies” after the fungus spores invade their bodies and take control of their brains. When an ant is infected, the fungus influences its brain and forces it to climb onto a tree or shrub. The fungus then takes over its muscles and causes it to enter a “death grip” where the ant bites into vegetation, attaches itself, and waits to die while the fungus consumes its body. The “death grip” leaves the ant in a position that enables the fungus to grow and release its infectious spores. The fungus continues to multiply inside its body and becomes so plentiful that the infected ant dies. After the ant dies, the fungus produces a stalk-like structure on the ant’s neck that ruptures and releases fungus spores that fall to the forest floor to lay in wait to infect other ants that are out foraging for food.

The zombie ant fungus has been known to destroy entire ant colonies; however, some ant species have evolved the ability to sense that a member of the colony has been infected and will remove the dying ant far away to protect the colony from further zombie ant fungal infestation.

Ophiocordyceps vs. Cordyceps Fungi

The older classification of Cordyceps fungi was changed to Ophiocordyceps. Therefore, the fungus that parasitizes ants was changed from Cordyceps unilateralis and renamed Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.

Can the zombie ant fungus infect humans?

Humans are not natural hosts for Ophiocordyceps, and this fungus cannot infect human hosts. Human body temperatures are also high enough that zombie ant fungi at that temperature can't survive in our bodies.

What happens if a zombie ant bites you?

A bite from a zombie ant might sting but would not have any more effects since the fungus can't infect humans. Zombie ants likely have little or no interest in biting a person.

Where do zombie ants live?

Ants that are at risk of becoming zombie ants live in areas where the Ophiocordyceps fungus can be found. Zombie ants can typically be found in tropical and temperate rainforests located in Brazil, Australia, Japan, and Thailand. However, as scientists continue to research and learn more about this fungus, zombie ants will likely be found in other areas.

What do zombie ants eat?

Until the Ophiocordyceps fungus takes control, the ants will continue to forage for their preferred food to bring back to their nest and feed their nestlings. However, when they become zombies and employ their “death-bite” grip on a plant stalk or leaf, they stop eating or foraging for food for their nestmates.

What are some uses for Ophiocordyceps fungus?

The National Cancer Institute and other medical research organizations are researching the potential medicinal properties of compounds found in Ophiocordyceps fungi.

Other Zombie Insects

Ants aren't the only insects that can turn into zombies. Learn about zombie caterpillars and zombie cockroaches.

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