San Francisco: Scientists have discovered four types of fungus in the Brazilian rainforest that can take control of ants.
These zombie fungi alter the behaviour of the Carpenter ant and kill the insect in a spot where the fungus has ideal conditions for its spores.
The fungi were found in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and have been described in the journal Plos ONE by the team of scientists around David Hughes from Pennsylvania State University.
The newly discovered fungi belong to the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis complex of fungus, which infects ants and causes their death. An infected ant will make its way to a leaf, bite into a leaf-vein and lock its jaws before dying.
The unique characteristic of the newly discovered fungi is that each one has specialised in dealing with a certain type of Carpenter ant, according to the scientists, and is an example of how rich in diversity the area of Brazil where the fungi were discovered is. The fungi also possess different types of spores tailored to infect their hosts as efficiently as possible.
Earlier studies have already shown how, and why, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis attacks ants. The fungi's spores attach themselves to an ant's exoskeleton while later a stalk will grow into the ant's head and alter its behaviour.
The ant then migrates from its nest in the trees down to the ground where moisture conditions and temperatures are more suited to the fungus. The fungus then develops a fruiting body with spores that will go on to infect more ants.