Updated: Aug 11, 2022
Who to trust? Is this ant to be the blame of this horrific scene? Or is it something else that's making it look scary? And what is that thing on its head? Well, let us clear the ant's name as he or she is not to blame. This ant was killed by the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, also known as the zombie-ant fungus. This insect affecting pathogen was founded by the naturalist Alfred Wallace in 1859. The fungus is found in mostly tropical forests and affect insects through hijacking their behavioral patterns. O. unilateralis thrives on humid climate and forces the affected host(i.e. the ant) to travel on the forest floor where the temperature helps maintain its growth. This destination by the forest floor is on purpose to leave a trail that may affect other ants in the colony(what a smart fungus).
I would like to mention... the ant is leading itself to death; it is being controlled by a fungus. Hence the name, "Zombie-Ant". Check out this video below that is narrated by the great David Attenborough.
After making the host travel the forest floor, O. unilateralis will force the ant to use its mandibles to attach to the underside of a leaf or hang from a branch as seen in the photo above. In this stage, the ant will eventually die and allow the growth for the fungus. A fruiting body (the reproductive stage) begins to form and protrudes from the ant's head. At maturity, the fruiting body releases spores that will infect other ants through wind dispersal or the trail left on the forest floor from the infected ant.
Photo Credits: By Lenapcrd on Wikipedia
Conclusion: Don't Trust The Fungus
We always have to talk about complexity, systems and the behavior of species. We really have a fungus that takes over the brains of ants and uses them to reproduce. The most mind-boggling act for me is that they manipulate the ant's mind to climb to an optimal height to better the dispersal of spores onto new hosts. This is evolution and survival of the fittest at its best. O. unilateralis is a deadly pathogen that cannot be trusted. So next time you see an ant, think twice about what their fellow ants go through.