Ants can be defined as the most developed of all insect species. Ant colonies are seamlessly organised, including millions of hard working inhabitants that are each assigned tasks to perform. Queens are responsible for laying eggs to ensure the survival of the ant colony, and males are in charge of mating with winged queens. Soldiers are appointed as the protectors of the colony, and collect food on occasion. Lastly, the female workers have the hardest job of all: nursing larvae, digging nests, foraging for food and guarding the colony.
Not only are these ants highly organised, but they also are rather skilled too. Did you know that they can carry up to ten times their body weight? Not only do these crawling insects have brawn, but they have brains too. They communicate via pheromones and other chemical signals. Ants signal pathways to their nests by using a trail of pheromones. Interestingly enough, this trail of pheromones can also indicate the social status of an ant in that particular nest!
Although ants are very skilled in their communication and task outputs, strange things do happen to these insects. So weird in fact, that I see scenes from World War Z flashing before my eyes. In tropical rain forests, a fungus named “Ophiocordyceps” is prevalent, known to balance the ant population if it gets too large. Even though this is the first time I have heard of something like this taking place (a real-life zombie fungus!), fossil evidence proves that it has been around for the last 48 million years, known to kill ants mercilessly!
To explain this unnatural occurrence is actually quite mind boggling. Once an unsuspecting ant treads over its spores, this fungus attaches itself to the ant. It will then enter the ant’s nervous system by sticking so tightly that it uses enzymes and pressure to blow a hole through the ant’s body. The zombie ant fungi parasites itself; feeding off the ant’s non-vital organs for reproduction purposes. It will then also change the ant’s behavior. The poor six-legged insect will walk around aimlessly – zombie-like – convulsing from time to time. This is Mother Nature’s very own form of ant control, but it harshly differs from what we know in zombie movies – Cordyceps attacks whilst its victim is completely alive!
Once the fungus has a good grip on the ant’s central nervous system, it will make the ant leave its colony, and climb a tree where it will latch onto and bite into a leaf (referred to as the ‘death grip’), unable to move any further. This is the perfect platform for the spore-producing stalk to grow out of the back of an ant’s head, ready to be distributed again…
Mother Nature can indeed be very mischievous sometimes. It is apparent in its counter fungi it will release to kill off the zombie ant fungi, known as hyperparisites. This secondary fungus will grow over the zombie ant fungus and its stalk, preventing it from spouting spores. What is very interesting is that this fungus will only choose to live on Cordyceps. Furthermore, hyperparasites have a sterilizing effect on the zombie ant fungi, rendering it futile. It seems there is justice after all in the world of the ants.
This whole phenomenon is quite scary in the sense that the fungi actually prefer mammal hosts! Although, according to David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology at Pennsylvania State University, such an outbreak as described above would most likely come from a virus than fungus. He further says that fungi are a positive force of nature; “Fungi are remarkably good at producing compounds that affect the physiology and the neurobiology of mammals”. Take Penicillin for example. Phew! So here’s hoping this sort of take-over stays firmly rooted – excuse the pun – in the ant colony!
Fortunately for us city dwellers who experience an ant problem, we can always call the Rentokil experts to put in place an ant control solution should we find ourselves wondering how to get rid of ants that plague our homes. Thank goodness we have a local expert that we can count on to restore the ‘balance’ of the ant population, instead of resorting to Mother Nature’s punitive ant control tactics!