6 more varieties of zombie ant fungus discovered by scientists

March 3, 2011 BRAZIL – The deepest reaches of the Brazilian jungle harbor some of the most dangerous life on Earth, but the ants in the rainforest face an enemy more sinister than most. On a recent field trip to the region, scientists discovered four new species of fungus that infect ants, take over their bodies and eventually kill them in a place that is just right for the organism to grow inside them. The fungus can destroy entire colonies and leave behind gruesome ant graveyards, where twisted, dark corpses rest with their mandibles locked around leaf veins, a final act that secures the creature’s host in position before it releases spores to infect others. David Hughes at Penn State University and Harry Evans at the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International in Surrey identified the four species of Ophiocordyceps fungus while working in the Atlantic rainforest in Minas Gerais, southeastern Brazil. The lifecycle of the organism is extraordinary. Ants become infected with the fungus when spores land on them from above, or when they encounter them on the forest floor. Once attached, the spores use enzymes to get inside the ant’s body where the fungus begins to grow. Within a week or so, chemicals released by the fungus cause the ant to wander off and bite on to leaf veins and other vegetation, moments before dying. Many ants are found in places where the conditions are perfect for fungal growth. Once the ant has died, the fungus slowly sprouts from its head and grows a pod of spores which are fired onto the forest floor at night, to infect other ants. The scientists have found six more species of the fungus in Cairns, Australia, home to some of the oldest rainforests on Earth. –Guardian
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