Instead of talking about a specific paper today, I’m going to talk about ZOMBIE ANTS <cue horror music>. Parts of this will count as self-plagiarism, because I’ve blogged about this in other places. Let the post cannibalism begin!
I attended the annual meeting of the American Society of Parasitologists last summer, and it was awesome. David Hughes gave a really awesome talk called “Zombie Ants: The Precise Manipulation of Social Insect Behavior by a Fungal Parasite.” I’m sure you’re totally hooked already, but just in case you’re not seeing how cool this is, let me reel you in with some photos. (These aren’t ants, but you’ll see those later.)
Parasites often manipulate their host’s behavior in order to increase the probability that they (the parasites) will be successfully transmitted to their next host. In the case of the parasitic fungus of these ants, the fungus wants the ant to go hang out somewhere that will result in the fungus being able to rain spores down on other ants. It does this by making the ants climb up to a leaf above an area of a high ant traffic (areas that Hughes calls “killing fields”). The ant is then “forced” to bite down on the main vein of that leaf, and then its mandibles get stuck that way, so that the ant is attached to the underside of the leaf forever. Then the fungus sprouts out of the ant’s head and does its whole raining spores of death thing.
Since David Attenborough explains things better than I do, I’m going to link you to David Hughes’ website, where he has more info and some sexy videos (including Attenborough).
As a final note, Hughes is looking into using this parasitic fungus as a form of biocontrol for pest ants, like on farms. In other words, YOU TOO could have your very own ZOMBIE ANTS.
How do you feel about using parasites as biocontrols? That’s a huge can of worms, I know, but I’d like to hear your opinions.