We're all familiar with the fearsome tale of the "zombie ants." As the Inquisitr previously reported, these poor creatures, generally belonging to various species of carpenter ants, are infected by a deadly fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato, which takes over the insect's body and commands it to kill the rest of the colony in a very strange manner.
Ophiocordyceps needs the ant's body in order to multiply and release its fatal spores. But having an infected ant stay on the ground wouldn't do much in terms of fungal transmission since "Zombie ants" don't actually viciously attack the colony to spread the disease.
Instead, the fungus came up with a clever trick: it highjacks the ant's body and commands it to climb high up a nearby tree. There, the ant chomps into a leaf and remains attached until its body is consumed by the growing fungus, and the parasite blooms into a stalk rising from the back of the ant's head.
This cruel but highly intelligent mechanism allows Ophiocordyceps, also known as the "Zombie ant fungus," to use the ant as a puppet and shower the colony below with spores, raining death upon its fellow ants.
As if this wasn't terrifying enough, entomologists from Pennsylvania State University discovered that the killer Ophiocordyceps fungus is actually more intelligent than previously thought and that it has adapted to climate change in order to ensure its survival, Phys.org reports.
During an expedition into the forests of Sanda in southern Japan, Penn State's Raquel Loreto stumbled upon a familiar yet bizarrely strange sight. The "Zombie ants" she encountered in this deciduous forest were very different from the specimens she had seen on numerous occasions in the tropical, evergreen forests of South America.
For one thing, they had settled a lot higher up the trees. And, for a mysterious reason, instead of biting into leaves, the "Zombie ants" were wrapped around twigs and hanging upside down.
In a study published yesterday in the journal Evolution, the entomologist argues that this peculiar phenomenon is actually an evolutionary adaptation that helped the "Zombie ant fungus" survive in temperate climates, where trees lose their foliage in the winter.