We have covered extensively the Ophiocordyceps fungus that affects ants in the wilderness– one that takes over the brain of the ant, and makes it climb high into a tree-top, adhere itself to a leaf or twig, and die. A horn-like protuberance then sprouts from the head of the ant – one that holds spores that are then released to fall to the forest floor, to begin the morbid life-cycle again.
If the name Ophiocordyceps sounds familiar to gamers– it’s also the killer fungus used as the mechanism of destruction in the best-selling game The Last of Us.
We have been in contact with scientist Charissa de bekker, who has shared many of her field notes and postulations with us, regarding this odd behavior. We will be posting some of her results in a future article.
But now a University of Louisiana-Lafayette student, Stephen Saltamachi, has discovered yet another brain-manipulating pathogen — one different from the Ophiocordyceps fungus; one that seems to exhibit similar behavior– but could be even more deadly to the species, as it seems to be targeting queen ants!
Saltamachi contacted David Hughes, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University, and a member of the team with Charissa de bekker studying the Ophiocordyceps fungus, and they were immediately intrigued.
Crazily, this new fungus was possibly first documented in the 1800’s, with very little mention after.
Saltamachia says he identified the fungus in part by the distinctive shape of its chlamydospore, a thick-walled structure involved in fungal survival and reproduction, that looks something like a brain-shaped clover.
Of course it looks like a brain-shaped clover.
One of the most unique aspects of the fungus is that it only appears to infect queen ants, Hughes says. It’s unclear exactly how it does that, and it’s unknown how the fungus affects queens’ behavior other than perhaps influencing them to leave their nest and killing them, he adds.
It’s clear that nature will continue to surprise us. It’s why scientific exploration is important. I would like to think society as a whole feels that intelligence is at the core of the survival of the human race, like the ants. Adding though, one last sober thought, it’s interesting to note that this newly discovered fungus targets an integral part of the reproduction of the species, the queen ants in this case… almost as if by design.