Killer Fungi, Zombie Ants and Life and Death in the Rainforest

If a killer fungi that latches on to ant’s heads, releasing chemicals into their brains that make them go crazy and eventually killing them sounds like something out of a horror film, you’re in for a surprise. This seemingly harmless little fungi, known as Cordyceps, is probably an ant’s worst nightmare. It works by distributing its spores near carpenter ant colonies until until lands on the the head of an ant. Once it starts sprouting, its roots travel into the ant’s brain, releasing some interesting neurotoxic chemicals that alter the ant’s behavior, making them go somewhat insane. Eventually, the fungi makes the ant clamp its mandibles on a vein of a leaf, utterly immobilizing the ant until it dies. The most interesting phenomenon about this all is that when other ants realize that one of their men have been affected, they send a lonesome guy to kill the infected ant and carry him far away from the colony. Obviously, these ants know what this fungi means for them. It’s like something that comes out of a science-fiction book but one guide called it “cancer-like.” No one knows for sure how this fungi works but scientists say its related to LSD.

The 'killer' fungi that causes a sort of brain disease within ants, making them crazy and eventually killing them.

Fungi are probably one of the most important organisms in any ecosystem, yet they are constantly underestimated and understudied by scientists. Most people relate fungi with death and decaying, and their role does involve breaking apart dead, organic matter. However, I like to think of them as givers of life. In an awesome book about fungi called Demystifying Mushrooms (indeed by a hippy-looking fellow that just fell in love with these organisms), the author talks about how fungi are the natural recyclers of nature. They speed up the process by which other plants- trees, shrubs, and everything else that serves as the foundation of life-  can use this dead organic matter as nutrients to start new life. In this way, fungi is really at the beginning of the life cycle rather than at the end as most people see them. Even the above “ant-killers” of the rainforest are mearly transforming energy from ants back into the forest. So next time you eat a mushroom or see fungus growing somewhere, celebrate its role as a transformer and giver of life.. or just eat your damn mushroom, either way.

A Bridesmaid's Candle. This beautiful fungi lives for only 12 hours before returning back to the ground. It's really a treat getting to see one of these.

More cool fungi doing its job.