Zombies. People seem to have really fallen in love with the genre in the past few years. I remember watching both Resident Evil AND Shaun of the Dead the same night at our local theater, and then dragging my husband back to watch it AGAIN. I was at the edge of my seat during 28 Days Later (though I was partly watching to catch a glimpse of our newest Doctor…Christopher Eccelston! Yes, he had a role in that movie). Since then, I’ve become a bit zombie’d out, even annoyed. I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies yet because, well, I don’t think even zombies can liven up that yawn-o-rama. Of course, it’s shows like The Walking Dead that restore my faith in zombie culture (and books like The Passage).
But what if zombies were real?
National Geographic has just put out an article this month about not one, but FOUR newly discovered fungi (so new, they don’t really have the correct nomenclature for them yet!) that “infects” ant species in Brazil, causing them to wander around looking for a good spot to promptly die and allow their fungus master to eat them from the inside out! Yikes! Just take a look at the pictures, they are UTTERLY HORRIFYING.
True, they aren’t “real” zombies in the sense that they don’t consume the living flesh of their ant brethren. But they are completely consumed by the fungus, which dictates their movements and may force them to infect other ants. The fungus will then have the ants find a stable place, like a leaf or a vine, and clamp down on it, effectively immobilizing themselves there, at which point the microorganism kills the ant, and begins the next phase of it’s life cycle…sprouting, using the ant’s body as sustenance. Ugh, I just felt a cold shiver go up my spine.
However, as new as this specimen is, this isn’t the first parasite I’ve heard of that uses ants to complete its life cycle. The Oatmeal originally introduced me to Dicrocoelium dendriticum, a parasite that also turns ants into their zombie slaves, forcing them to clutch a tall blade of grass for long periods of time to get eaten. In addition to ants, the species uses snails and cows for temporary to permanent homes. Humans can also be infected by this creature, which is classified as a fluke, not a fungus. But still! Another animal that uses mind control on ants. I guess their nervous system is just that easy to mess with.
Stories like this can keep me awake at night with how little we really know about the world around us. Who is to say there isn’t a similar fungus/virus/worm that could make its way into our system and take us over, without anyone even knowing it? The Nat Geo fungus has already shown that it can branch off and infect other animals such as flies or crickets. Just a few more steps and you are up to vertebrates! Gross.
But that honestly doesn’t scare me as much as what the article suggested, that because the environment in Brazil was quickly being taken over by encroaching human activity and climate change, we might not have enough time to study these specimens. The delicate balance of their survival could be destroyed in the next ten, twenty years, as so many other species have been already, many we probably didn’t even know existed in the first place. For me, the true terror is living in a world without biological diversity and devoid of the mysteries that make me thankful to live on this little rock.
[If you’re interested in helping to preserve biodiversity, here is a list of some highly-rated eco-conservation charities.]