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This nightmare fungus turns ants into zombies and controls their every movement

Their brains aren’t the problem.

Those poor old ants that become zombies thanks to fungus are back in the news again.

According to a new study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, it’s the ants’ muscles rather than their brains that are infected.

The zombie ant fungus, which scientists call Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, was discovered way back in 1859 and hit the mainstream when it was featured in an episode of 2006’s Planet Earth.

The fungus infects the ant, then takes control of its body and forces it to bite into leaf and stay there until it dies. It’s forced vegetation by fungus resulting in death.

The fungus then continues to grow, eventually piercing the ant’s head’s head and shooting spores into the air to infect other ants. Nature is so damn metal sometimes.

Using 3D images, AI and machine-learning algorithms, the researchers looked at cell-level interactions between the fungal parasite and the ant host and found that fungus cells surrounded the ant’s muscle fibres but did infect the brain.

“Normally in animals, behaviour is controlled by the brain sending signals to the muscles, but our results suggest that the parasite is controlling host behaviour peripherally,” said senior author of the study David Hughes. “Almost like a puppeteer pulls the strings to make a marionette move, the fungus controls the ant’s muscles to manipulate the host’s legs and mandibles.”

Hughes and his colleagues believe that the fungus might preserve the ant’s brain so that it can survive long enough to perform its final biting act. You just have to admire the evil brilliance of that.

Gamers might notice the term “Ophiocordyceps” as being a little familiar.

In the 2013 game The Last of Us, the fungal infection that almost wipes out humanity is called “cordyceps” and functions in a very similar way. This is no coincidence and in an interview, the game’s creators even said that the zombie ants were an important inspiration. Yeah science!

Cordyceps is super bad news for ants but good news for us, because The Last of Us Part 2 is officially on the way.

The teaser trailer was revealed at last year’s PlayStation Experience and a brutal snippet of the game was recently released at Paris Games Week.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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