Carpenter ants are used by a parasitic fungus to complete its life cycle. This parasitic fungus turns its victim into a zombie. The ant meets the spore of the fungus while foraging and the parasitic fungus spreads in the ant’s body. After that, this parasitic fungus takes control of the nervous system of the insect. Because this fungus controls the nervous system, it forces the ant to go on a leaf or twig and when the parasite ends the ant’s life then the fungus will release the discharge spores. These spores will go on the ground to infect other ants. The researchers have discovered that the fungus invades muscles fibers throughout the host’s body, which allows it to control the victim’s behavior, but stays away from its brain. Also, they created 3D images to understand better the movements of the fungus.
“Normally in animals, behavior is controlled by the brain sending signals to the muscles, but our results suggest that the parasite is controlling host behavior peripherally,” David Hughes, the senior author of the study, said. “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.”
“We hypothesize that the fungus may be preserving the brain, so the host can survive until it performs its final biting behavior – that critical moment for fungal reproduction. But we need to conduct additional research to determine the brain’s role and how much control the fungus exercises over it,” Hughes added. It’s still a mystery how this fungus can con the ant towards a leaf, but this parasitic fungus may use a chemical cocktail in the host’s brain.
“Behavioral manipulation is such a complex [characteristic] that it only occurs when there’s a very close co-evolution between pathogen and host,” Charissa de Bekker, a molecular biologist and lead author of an older study on the fungus, told Live Science in 2014. “The theory is that every species of ant has its own species of fungi that it gets infected by.” “We took the four species of ants that we used for the injection study, dissected their brains and kept [the brains] alive by putting them in an insect cell culture medium,” de Bekker said.
“We added the fungus to this medium and let it react to the environment, and then we extracted the medium, which had all of the molecules the fungus produced.” The result was clear, each victim contained thousands of chemicals and some of those chemicals were unknown. Researchers were shocked when they found out that this fungus can create a specific chemical cocktail for each species. So, you need to know that this parasitic fungus controls its victim through its muscles. The host it’s just like a puppet. Hopefully, this parasitic fungus will not fall in love with humans.