ZZN Zombologist, Harvard Professor, Author, Fungi (get it fun-guy? Pfft. you’ll get it in a second), and General Genius Badass Dr. Steve Schlozman is always willing to tackle your Zombie Apocalypse questions, so when a reader asked about Zombie Ants, We couldn’t wait to hear his take… and it will blow your mind!
“There is a fungus in some rain forests that attacks ants/insects specifically.Their behavior changes dramatically and they start to climb upwards and latch themselves onto a stem/leaf with their mandibles.The spores from the fungus are controlling the ant until it eventually dies.Then a fungus starts to grow from the back of the ants head sometimes 3 times the length of the ant.When the fungus stops growing it then releases spores into the air in millions which then attach themselves to other ants eventually wiping out the entire colony.Some of the soldier ants spot the behavioral changes and actually take the infected ant far from the colony and dump them. My question is would this be possible in humans if a fungus could adapt to our immune system as some lesser ones have.Would this then be interpreted as a zombie outbreak?There would be no flesh eating realistically but lots of shambling mind controlled people trying to get to denser populated areas to spread the infection as per the fungus’s programming.”
Dr. Steve Says:
“Hard to resist this scenario if you like zombies and gory evolutionary adaptations. Take a look at this photograph: the ant, a Thai member of the Camponotus leonardi species, has been infected by a particularly “sinister” Ophiocordyceps fungus. The picture is just what it looks like: the fungus itself has formed a stalk and burst through the ant’s head, allowing the spores to spread freely and search for other ants to infect. The ant, who only recently died, clings despite death to the leaf, because, researchers believe, the fungus casuses the ant’s muscles of mastication to atrophy in place only after biting the leaf for one final time. Even more intriguing for zombie enthusiasts, the ant behaves differently once infected. It doesn’t follow well established trails that healthy ants walk. It staggers, and, well, shambles. It looks drunk. And other ants shun it and avoid it.
But I put sinister in quotations for the reason, because this adaptation by the fungus shouldn’t be confused with a purposeful behavior. Evolutionary theories state that pathogens, like everything else that lives, stumble around with a variety of somewhat random behaviors until it hits, by chance alone, on a strategy that gives it a competitive advantage. Then a species changes or a new species forms, as the competitive advantage allows the now strategically behaving pathogen to reproduce with less effort. The change is random. Pure chance. That’s sort of what makes zombie movies so scary. Often we think of the contagion as having hit upon a great and passionless strategy. They pathogen that makes you into a zombie could care less about you. In the same fashion, when that fungus attacks that ant, it ain’t personal. The fungus has nothing against the ant, and it might in a zillion years even stop attacking the ant if a random mutation allows the fungus some other means of propagating itself even more efficiently.
For humans, though, the part that stops this model from being a zombie model is the exploding head. Ant are arthropods, which, among other things, means they have exoskeletons. If an animal eschews its skeleton as scaffolding (we use our skeletons as close hangers for our muscles and safe houses for our organs), then it has to have a relatively weak skeleton in order for its muscles to move it around. In other words, there ain’t much toughness to the skull of an ant.
Take a human skull, though. That’s a different ballgame. Our brains are protected by super thick bones that seal along hardy sutures and though there are documented cases of horrific brain infections that invade human brains like a happy worm in newly wet dirt, generating enough pressure to crack the skull from the inside just doesn’t happen.
So – to sum up: fungi that affect behavior and even mimic some zombie-like behavior in ants exist and are creepy but not personal. We know that infections of human brains can change behavior and mimic some zombie antics – the Borna virus, for example, can jump from animals to humans and make us pathologically hungry. There is even some evidence that Toxoplasmosis-infeted rats cause rats that would otherwise avoid cat urine to be drawn to it or at least to not notice it. This behavior, like the fungus in the ant, causes the rat to leave its feces in domesticated cat litter boxes and allows transmission of toxoplasmosis to humans who change the litter. Does the toxoplasmosis make the rat more efficiently help the toxoplasmosis to propogate? It has certainly been suggested.
Finally, try to think of an animal that would be vulnerable to a sophisticated brain pathogen (i.e. an animal with a sophisticated brain, perhaps) but that lacks a skull. What about an octopus or a squid or another cephalopod? Find me a bug that infects that brain, and you’d have octopi exploding all over the place. In fact, I put it in my book!”
ZZN Thanks Dr. Steve for his brilliant scientific insight as always!
So a quick recap: Will the Zombie Ants lead to the Zombie Apocalypse? Probably not. Should we keep our eyes on the animal kingdom anyway? You bet your backside!
Dr. Steve welcomes your questions! Leave them in a comment below and he may choose to answer them!
Dr. Steve Schlozman is the Resident Zombologist for Zombie Zone News, and author of the book The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Diaries of the Apocalypse.
He is also the Co – Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Associate Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency at MGH/McLean Program in Child Psychiatry, a Staff Child Psychiatrist for Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Schlozman is also is a Lecturer in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.