Mar 4

Four new species of fungus have been discovered which infect carpenter ants, turning their victims into “zombies” by taking over their bodies before killing them in a place which is perfect for the fungus to spread its spores to new hosts.

Photo of carpenter ant cleaning antennae

A carpenter ant, Camponotus ligniperda. The newly discovered fungi each attack specific species in the Camponotus genus.

Sinister parasites

In a story that could come straight from a horror movie, Ophiocordyceps fungi (also known as Cordyceps) use enzymes to enter the body of their ant host, where the fungus begins to grow. The fungus releases chemicals which alter the ant’s behaviour, causing it to leave the colony and bite onto a leaf vein, securing it in a location which is ideal for fungal growth.

In perhaps its most sinister twist, the fungus then kills the ant and begins to sprout from its head, forming a pod of spores which are released into the forest to infect other ants.

Photo of bullet ant on leaf

The bullet ant, another species which can be infected by parasitic fungi.

New fascinating fungus discoveries

The four new fungus species were discovered as part of a study in the Atlantic forest in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Published in the journal PloS One, the study also found that the fungi have a back-up plan in case they fail to infect a new ant straight away. Spores on the ground are able to slowly grow a secondary spore that juts up from the forest floor and latches onto ants as they pass.

According to David Hughes, one of the researchers working on the study, “It’s a fabulously complex organism. There is a beauty to the whole thing, whether it is the chemicals at work that take over the ant, or the spores which try one strategy and then another to find a host on the forest floor.

Photo of leaf-cutter ants carrying leaves back to the nest

Leaf-cutter ants use fungi as food, cutting up leaves on which to grow the fungal ‘gardens’ on which they feed.

Each of the newly discovered species targets a different species of carpenter ant. Other types of Ophiocordyceps fungus may also infect a range of other invertebrates, including moths, grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and spiders.

View an amazing ARKive video of bullet ants infected with a parasitic fungus.

Find out more about these fungi on the BBC Wildlife Finder website.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author