No – this is not a new Halloween story. However, it is a story about the living dead. Well – in a way. It’s a story about ants that are turned into zombies before dying a horrible death away from the colony. Yes – these zombie ants do exist and they are in Florida.
What are they?
Zombie ants are not a new species of pest and they are not some type of mutation. Instead zombie ants are ants that have become infected with a specific type of fungus. Recently re-discovered in Louisiana after more than a century, this type of fungus is called Ophiocordyceps camponoti-rufipedis. Recently, an additional four types of zombie fungus has been found in the Brazilian Rain Forest.
Why are they called zombie ants?
The fungus attacks carpenter ants, influences their behavior and eventually kills them. Once the fungus attaches to the ant, it somehow forces the ant to leave the colony and move to an area that is more appropriate for the fungi to reproduce and grow additional spores. Often times, this is to a higher elevation or to lush vegetation.
It is unknown exactly how the fungus controls the movements and brains of the ants. But scientists were able to discover that not only does the fungus control the ant’s movements, it can control the direction in which the ant moves, the height the ant will climb to and can even control the direction the ant will face as it dies.
The carpenter ants normally do not leave their nest for any length of time, but when infected, they move to new vegetation, climb the stalk and get a death grip on the leaf. Then they die. The carcass as well as the new vegetation helps to increase new fungal growths.
If the fungus ends up within the ant colony, it usually dies due to lack of a food source, so the fungus must quickly move the ant from the ant colony to a better suited spot.
Are they in Florida?
Yes, at least the original fungus is. It is thought to exist in all areas of the world. When the fungi in Brazil were studied further, scientists found evidence that they are declining and may soon face extinction.
Do I have to worry about them?
No. The fungus and zombie ants have likely been around a long time. We probably don’t see them and we definitely don’t see any effects. Although the fungus can infect ants, they never seem to take over the ant colony to the point where they wipe out the colony. And they don’t impact humans. But they sure make a solid basis for a science fiction story.