As everyone knows, human zombies are created when an uninfected human is bitten by a member of the brain-craving undead. But what about ant zombies? Yes, that’s right: ant zombies.
In the South American rainforest, ants have a mortal enemy: the parasitic fungi in the Ophiocordyceps (also known as Cordyceps) genus. These fungi infect ants and other insects, forcing them to do its fungal bidding. For example, a spore-infected zombie ant will climb to a perfectly selected spot in the canopy where it will die. At this point a fungus stalk blooms out of the ant’s head; once fully grown the fungus will burst open spreading spores over the area and infecting other ants. Each zombie-inducing fungus species is specifically linked to one ant or other insect species.
A paper in the open-access journal PLoS ONE describes four new species of this fungus from the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, laying the groundwork for studying the zombie relationship in a degraded habitat. Each of the new fungi species, from the Ophiocordyceps genus, were attached to a different species of carpenter ant.
The Atlantic Forestt, running largely along the coast of Brazil, is one of the world’s most imperiled rainforests with less than 7% of its original extent remaining. While researchers have studied the relationship between the fungi and its hosts in the largely intact Amazon, little is known about how the fungi species copes in fragmented habitat. In this case, the new fungi species were “all collected within a small area of fragmented, remnant forest”. Researchers hope the new fungi species, and their victims, will shed light on how fragmentation impacts them.
(01/10/2011) Scientists in the Netherlands have discovered that insects produce significantly less greenhouse gas per kilogram of meat than cattle or pigs. Their study, published in the online journal PLoS One, suggests that a move towards insect farming could result in a more sustainable – and affordable – form of meat production.
(12/17/2010) Social interactions influence cannibalistic behavior among migratory bands of crickets, finds a new study published in the Public Library of Science. Cannibalism in turn is a major driving force behind the nature and direction of cricket swarms.
(10/12/2010) A new study in Ecology Letters has discovered that monarch butterflies employ medicinal plants to treat their larva. Researchers found that certain species of milkweed, which the larva feed on, can reduce the threat of a sometime deadly parasite. However, even more surprising: “we have also found that infected female butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on plants that will make their offspring less sick, suggesting that monarchs have evolved the ability to medicate their offspring,” says lead author Jaap de Roode.