Parasitic Fungus in Bullet Ants

This specimen, collected by J.C. Abbott in the Refugio Bartola of Nicaragua, shows a bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) in the later stages of Ophiocordyceps infection. Members of this genus of parasitic fungi, thought until 2007 to be part of the genus Cordyceps, are frequently referred to as the “zombie fungus” for their unique and gruesome life cycles.

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Once it has infected an ant, this fungus influences the ant’s behaviour, causing it to move to a location suitable for the spreading of spores. This behaviour is remarkably specific, and will consistently target leaf veins at similar heights. The individual in this photograph appears to have clamped its jaws on the stalk of a plant. Once done, the host dies from infection, and the fungus fruits, producing growths that protrude from the host’s body. Based on fossilized plant records, it is thought that the Cordyceps fungus has existed since at least 48 million years ago, due to similar markings on leaves from that era (Hughes et al., 2010). The specific species of fungus present in this photograph may be identified by a close reading of Sung et al., 2007, however, Evans et al. 2011 has demonstrated more diversity in the genus than previously thought, showing O. unilateralis to be, in actuality, at least four distinct species, each of which parasitizes a specific species of ant.

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The process of Cordyceps infection in bullet ants was featured in an episode of Planet Earth, narrated by David Attenborough. [YouTube]

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James Marchment

James Marchment

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