Photo: David Hughes/Penn State University
In 2011, scientists discovered a species of fungus that turns ants into zombies. Aptly called the zombie-ant fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l.), the organism invades an ant's brain and causes it to march to its death at a mass grave near the ant colony. There, fungus spores erupt out of the ant's head to infect more ants.
As if that's not weird enough, David Hughes of Penn State University has discovered that some ant colonies survive this zombie infestation ... with a little help from another predator: another species of fungus that attacks the zombie-ant fungus!
"In a case where biology is stranger than fiction, the parasite of the zombie-ant fungus is itself a fungus -- a hyperparasitic fungus that specializes in attacking the parasite that turns the ants into zombies," Hughes said.
"The hyperparasitic fungus effectively castrates the zombie-ant fungus so it cannot spread its spores," said Hughes, who is an assistant professor of entomology and biology, and a member of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State. "Because the hyperparasitic fungi prevents the infected zombie-ant fungus from spreading spores, fewer of the ants will become zombies."