Posted at 12:59 PM ET, 05/10/2011

Zombie ants bite at noon, die at sunset


A potential ant victim.
Editor’s note: In our continuing endeavor to bring you new information in honor of Zombie Awareness Month, Sarah Anne Hughes delves into the terrifying world of zombie ants. Prepare to be grossed out.

They begin as regular carpenter ants. But when infected with a parasitic fungus, these insects are forced to wander the forest in search of a leafy victim to unleash their “death grip” bite. Welcome to the world of zombie ants.

In today’s terrifying news of the living insect dead, researchers have discovered new details about what happens after Camponotus leonardi ants are infected with a species of the fungus Ophiocordyceps. When the ants come in contact with the fungus spores on the floor of the forest, the ant’s head is filled with fungal cells. The cells essentially take over the ant’s body, forcing it to leave its colony, walking in a weaving line. It then bites down on the vein of the leaf with what researchers call a “death grip.” With the ant attached to the leaf, the fungus, which is found in tropical forests in Africa, Brazil and Thailand, sprouts from the head of the ant.

New, even creepier research shows that the infected ants all take their last bites at the same time — at high noon* (cowboy zombie ants?) — indicating that they are synchronized in some way. David Hughes, a researcher from the study and professor at Penn State University, told LiveScience that this is a “remarkable phenomenon. “Although ants bite at noon they don't in fact die until sunset. Likely this strategy ensures (the fungus) has a long cool night ahead of it during which time it can literally burst out of the ant’s head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk,” he said.

A fossilized leaf discovered last year shows that Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the guilty fungus, has been turning ants into zombies for at least 48 million years.

After the success of “The Walking Dead,” I could see a show about zombie ants taking off. “The Creepy Crawling Camponotus,” anyone?

Watch the zombie ants in action below:

*Okay, so LiveScience is saying the ants bite down “around noon.” But we couldn’t resist the joke.

By  |  12:59 PM ET, 05/10/2011

 
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