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Real Life Zombies

Updated on January 10, 2018

It is something right out of a science fiction movie. In the September 2009 issue of The American Naturalist , a study reveals that a tropical fungus invades an ant's body and compels it to do its will. Hijacks it, that is. What's a poor fungus to do? It can only survive in certain temperatures and humidity. It needs to be in a certain location and a certain distance from the ground. The fungus can't just walk there itself and it really does want to survive. So it adapts. How? By turning those little ants into zombies to do their legwork.

No, it's not a B movie plot. The fungus whose scientific name is Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis infects the ants up in their tropical home high in the rainforest trees. Once possessed by the invading spore, the ant leaves kith and kin, bites down hard on a leaf and dies. But like every B movie plot and zombie thriller, there is more horror to come.

When the infected ant leaves its natural habitat, it is compelled to navigate to a specific leaf. Where it ends up to die is no accident. Scientists have found that the fungus correctly manipulates its host to an ideal location for its own growth. The dying ant is sometimes driven a long way during the last hours of its life.

But getting the ant to die where it wants it to is only the beginning. The fungus has found ways to take full advantage of its prized host and has developed methods to keep it intact. As it spreads through the now dead ants body, the fungus turns everything to sugar which implements its growth. It leaves the muscles controlling the ant's mandibles in place to assure the ant's grip on the leaf remains. Should the outer shell of the ant acquire any cracks or crevices, the fungus spreads itself like putty to fill it in and assure a safe and protected environment in which to grow. This zombie-making fungus seems to know what it's doing.

Maybe the Texas ranchers got wind of of what's going on in the tropical rainforests. Plagued by angry fire ants (imported from South America) that devastate ranch land and even swarm and kill newborn calves with their poisonous bites, ranchers took action. They introduced a tiny phorid fly (also from South America) to handle the fire ant problem. The flies swoop on the unsuspecting ant in attack and lays eggs in its body. The hatched larvae proceeds to the ant's brain where it eats it. The now brainless zombie ant wanders around aimlessly for sometimes up to two weeks. The ant's head finally falls off and a new fly emerges to start the process again.

It's ghastly, I know. The worse part is that zombie invasions are not uncommon in the animal world. Certain species of crabs, fish, worms, grasshoppers and more have been hosts. B movies are not so scary, after all.

Other Zombie Creatures

Zombie snail - The flatworm is an invader too. It lays its eggs only to have them eaten by Amber snails. The eggs hatch in the snail's digestive system changing into broodsacs which elongate and invade the snail's tentacles. The broodsacs seek light and the poor snail can no longer retract its tentacles or perceive light. It wanders helplessly into the open attracting the birds which are the flatworm's final destination.

Zombie grasshopper - Another invader is the parasitic hairworm which targets the unsuspecting grasshopper. The grasshopper ingests the hairworm which may live in the corpse of a mosquito. As the hairworm grows, it destroys everything in the grasshopper's brain except for motor function. When the worm reaches adulthood, it uses the grasshopper as a vessel to reach its aquatic mating ground where it compels it to jump into the water and drown. The worm emerges to look for a mate.

Zombie cockroach - The emerald cockroach wasp is a zombie-maker. It stings a large cockroach twice, once to paralyze its front legs and once to remove the escape reflex from its brain. It then steers the docile cockroach to a prepared nest. The wasp lays an egg on the roach's abdomen and leaves it there. When the egg hatches it feeds off the helpless roach. The wasp keeps the roach alive only long enough to use as a cocoon until it reaches adulthood.

Not There

Human Zombies

Is there really a disease that can make humans turn into zombies? Not that anyone knows about but there are diseases that mimic zombie-like behavior. A couple of these include Sleeping Sickness which is prevalent in Africa and eventually causes victims to fall into a zombie-like state. The rabies virus affects the brain if left untreated causing strange behavior and agitation. They are not the zombies of the Walking Dead but terrifying enough.


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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      gross but cool

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Ellahall - Thanks for stopping by. The name fits though, doesn't it?

    • ellahall2011 profile image


      9 years ago

      Hmmm.The name zombie ants is quiet preposterous to me. Never heard of it before. Thanks for sharing.

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Waynet - Good of you to visit - glad you enjoyed.

    • waynet profile image

      Wayne Tully 

      10 years ago from Hull City United Kingdom

      One thing I never understood in zombie movies was the absence of zombie animals.....A Seperately themed thought from myself who thinks too much....Anyway I learned something cool from this Hubpage and it just goes to show that nature has it's way of controlling stuff whether we like it or not and the ants have no choice!

      Great hub thanks!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Compellingcarl - Nature seems to take care of itself. Thank you so much for commenting.

    • compellingcarl profile image


      10 years ago from small town upstate New York

      Something really cool I learned about this subject at school is that these kind of parasitic fungi, that target specific species, act as biological controls keeping one type of insect from becoming dominate. The population of each insect species is kept in check by their fungal equivalent, if the bugs population booms then so will the fungus, thus acting as a negative feedback and reducing the population. Its crazy to think how this sort of thing ever evolved.

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Sometimes solutions cause the problems. Thanks for commenting.

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      10 years ago from Ohio, USA

      We had an aphid problem in my state... geniuses in the ag department introduced a lady bug to eat the aphids... now we have a lady bug infestation.

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi Michael - There are some dangerous insects out there. I think just spotting the one you descibe would send me running. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Michael Shane profile image

      Michael Shane 

      11 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

      We have some type of ant where I live that gets pretty big. They are bright red and black colored and sort of furry. You rarely see them but I have seen a few a few times in my neighbors yard. I was told 4 to 5 stings from this particular ant can cause a fatal outcome leading to death. Needless, to say I kill all antbeds in my yard and my neighbors yard. Great Hub!!

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Hi GL and philip - I also dislike chemicals and try not to harm anything if possible.

      Ants are interesting - rather smart sometimes (though not the zombies).

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • profile image

      philip carey 61 

      11 years ago

      I'm such a nerd. I have a huge book on "The Ants" by Holldobler and Wilson. They are fascinating, and a little revolting at times. This is very well written.

    • Green Lotus profile image


      11 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      We have an ant invasion in Georgia right now, due to lots and lots of rain! It's not zombies (i think:() ..just those annoying little "piss ants". I'm into green (if you haven't guessed), so I recommend pouring boiling H2O over the nests rather than spraying chemicals- which kill friendly buggies.

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      11 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      That just makes my skin crawl.

    • suziecat7 profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Ethel - I couldn't resist the Zombies video - it just seemed so appropiate.

      Jim - yes very crazy.

      Breakfast - I hope the bugs you dreamed about had heads intact.

      Thank you all for reading.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      11 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Love the Zombies Group-link.

    • breakfastpop profile image


      11 years ago

      Unbelievable. It's really strange but last night I dreamt about bugs! And now this!

    • jim10 profile image


      11 years ago from ma

      Wow! That is crazy.


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