WTF Fun Fact 13564 – Parasites Make Zombie Ants

Just what we need – zombie ants. Although, to be fair, this whole brain-controlling parasite thing sounds MUCH worse for the ants.

Nature’s Puppet Show

In Denmark’s Bidstrup Forests, ants unknowingly perform a choreographed dance. It’s orchestrated by a tiny parasite – the lancet liver fluke. This flatworm manipulates ants, driving them to the tip of grass blades and priming them for consumption by grazing animals.

It’s a strategy that ensures the parasite’s survival and researchers from the University of Copenhagen have delved deeper into the nuances of this relationship.

Creating Zombie Ants

One would imagine the parasite drives the ant to the grass top and leaves it there. But nature, as usual, is more complex.

A research team from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences discovered that the fluke intelligently navigates the ant’s actions based on temperature.

In the cool embrace of dawn and dusk, when cattle and deer graze, the infected ants climb to the grass’s pinnacle. But as the sun rises and temperatures soar, the fluke directs its ant host back down the blade, protecting it from the sun’s potentially lethal heat.

In other words, not only do the flukes turn the ants into “zombies,” the process is affected by temperature. The temperature-driven “zombie switch” fascinated the researchers. There was clear evidence that lower temperatures correlated with ants attaching to grass tips.

A Parasitic Mystery

Inside an infected ant, a multitude of liver flukes resides. Yet, only one needs to sacrifice itself to venture to the brain to assume control, altering the ant’s behavior.

This pioneering fluke, after ensuring the ant’s consumption by a grazer, also meets its end in the hostile environment of the grazer’s stomach.

However, the others, safely encased within the ant’s abdomen, are shielded in protective capsules, ensuring their survival and journey into the grazing animal’s liver.

By modifying their host’s behavior, these parasites significantly influence the food chain dynamics, affecting who eats whom in the natural world.

While understanding temperature-dependent control is a significant leap, the precise mechanics remain elusive. What chemical concoction does the liver fluke deploy to zombify the ants? That’s the next puzzle the team aims to solve.

While the concept of “mind control” might seem like science fiction, for the ants in the clutches of the liver fluke, it’s a daily reality.

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Source: “Brain-altering parasite turns ants into zombies at dawn and dusk” — ScienceDaily