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Mar. 11, 2011

Brazil: Land of the Zombie Ants

by Sam Flatow

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The dead walk. Well, they aren’t really dead. By definition, anything that is walking around and can reproduce (in this case by infection) can’t be classified as entirely dead. But that’s not the point.

The point is, zombies are real. Real small. And ant-like. In fact, some of those zombies are ants, controlled by the zombie-ant fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. But this is nothing new. David Attenborough has been feverishly warning us of our impending doom for years:

Oh Sir Attenborough! (he’s a knight you know) How brave you are! You see the legions of ants simultaneously crawling skywards, scratching at the heavens (or 25 cm toward the heavens, anyway) and you do not run or scream or release foul smelling chemicals to ward off predators as the mighty skunk! No, you stand your ground, a mere several thousand miles away, amidst the perils of a recording booth, boldly transmitting valuable zombie survival information while the world burns and bites and shuffles around you.

But lo, this end of light is merely a beginning, for it has been discovered that among ants, ONLY ants, and ONLY in Brazil, there are four different species of zombie fungi. Why? Why are there four different types of tiny-antennaed terrors? One isn’t enough? Apparently, zombification is so successful that four different zombie ant variations have evolved in Brazil alone. This means that not only are zombies a proven method of infection, they must be fairly successful.

The worst part is, people actually ingest cordyceps for medicinal purposes. Well, not Western medicine, Chinese medicine, although recently there has been hope for a new cancer drug derived from this rare fungus. Apparently, people in China have being eating mind control mushrooms for centuries for all kinds of crazy reasons. They claim there are 7000 different health benefits; but don’t listen to those neck-biters! They’ve been infected, and soon they will be raining spores upon you and your loved ones.

But there is still hope! Ants plagued by this zombie…plague…seem to be surviving well enough. Let us make them our example; follow their teachings and we too can survive the inevitable zombie infestation. So remember, if you come across someone partaking in this virulent treat, think to the ant. Do as the ant would do. Clear your mind of the infector’s lies for, with his diseased brain, that is all that his words shall bear. Then, grasp him firmly with your mandibles and carry him away from the rest of the colony.

About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

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