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This Fungus Is Infecting Insects, Controlling Their Brains, And Turning Them Into Zombies

Updated August 28, 2017 13.9k views8 items

Zombies are real, and the truth is scarier than any zombie movie ever could be. There is an entire genus of fungi with the ability to create zombie insects by infecting their bodies and taking over their brains. The fungus is known as Cordyceps, and there are hundreds of different species that can infect all sorts of insects and arachnids. While this may sound like something out of a B-grade horror film, hundreds of cases have been documented by the scientific community. 

While not all species of the zombie fungus Cordyceps are capable of full-on zombification, most involve some form of body takeover – and most cases end with the parasite killing the host. The indisputable fact remains that there is a fungus that turns insects into zombies, and just knowing that makes it a little harder to sleep at night.

  • Each Species Of Cordyceps Specializes In A Specific Host

    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    Don't mistake Cordyceps fungi for a single species, because there is a huge variety among them. So far, about 400 unique species have been identified. Each one has different effects and is specialized for one particular host; most target insects and arachnids, but some even infect other fungi.

    The Cordyceps that is able to make zombies out of ants is known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato, and it specifically targets two species of carpenter ant.

  • Cordyceps Essentially Hacks An Insect's Brain To Enslave It

    Photo: Erich G. Vallery, USDA Forest Service / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    The Cordyceps fungus that infects ants is one of the most highly evolved and specialized organisms on the planet. The fungus spreads into the ant's head, where it begins pumping thousands of different chemicals directly into the insect's central nervous system. The process is extremely complicated, and scientists are still trying to determine exactly what the different chemicals are doing and how they work together to control the ant.  

  • Insect Suicide Is Often The End Goal

    Photo: Metaweb / CC-BY

    For any ant that falls prey to this deadly fungus, the results are rarely pleasant. After its brain is hijacked, chemical impulses drive it to crawl up the nearest blade of grass. The fungus then forces the ant to clamp down on the grass before killing it. The high vantage point allows for the optimum dispersal of the Cordyceps's spores. This way, the wind can carry the spores over a vast distance and infect countless more ants.

  • The Fungus Spreads Through A Host's Body Until It Bursts

    Photo: flickr / CC0

    Even creatures who aren't zombified are in for a horrific time. Cordyceps works its way through the entire body of the host, eventually forcing itself out in a gruesome display. Once out in the open, the spores are free to spread to freely from host to host.

    It may be disturbing, but Cordyceps has developed a unique and efficient method of reproduction.