Cordyceps Fungus

A photo of an ant infected with the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus in 2013 in South Carolina. The photo is by Walt Sturgeon (Mycowalt) at Mushroom Observer, a site for observation, identification and the exploration of mycology (the study of mushrooms).

Zombified ants are on the road to an infestation, and the fungus behind it won't stop spreading until every carpenter ant is taken hostage on the southeast coast of the United States.

The fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, is found mostly in tropical and warm ecosystems. It is insect-pathogenic, which means it causes a disease that infects and harms its insect hosts. 

The zombifying fungus was discovered in 1859 by a British naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, who is most known for his idea of evolution by natural selection. 

“Their behavioral manipulations on their ant hosts is very similar to my own research on parasitic castrators in marine snails, where parasitic flatworms hijack the body of a marine snails,” Professor of Marine Science and Biology Nancy Smith said.

The fungus infects the bodies of two carpenter ant species, Camponotus castaneus and Camponotus americanus that have ranges in the south eastern United States, including Florida. The fungus then begins to manipulate the ants actions, forcing them to eat the undersides of leaves and making them attach to twigs where they will eventually die. 

The infectious parasitoid then produces a deadly stalk piercing the ant’s head that then spreads the spores onto the ground. This will then infect any ant that walks through the spores below. 

As long as the fungus is active, it is an endless cycle.

“I think it’s fascinating that such a deadly process is happening around us in such a small creature and most of us aren't even aware that it’s happening,” junior Jared Stephens said. 

The fungus has been well known in South America for years despite being identified in the 1800s, but the realization of the fungus’ impact on species in the U.S. and its capabilities were discovered in 2009 by David Hughes of Pennsylvania State University

Hughes found a spread of photos by Kim Fleming on Flickr, who photographed the infected ants in her backyard in South Carolina, which impacted his research on the parasitoid.

Co-Science Editor

Kylee is a junior majoring in marine science with a minor in journalism. She loves going to the beach and playing with her dog.

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