With all those dead animals reported in January, of course 2011 was a bumper year for zombie insects. Reports of mind-controlled ants and caterpillars creeped everyone out this year.
In May, in the journal BMC Ecology, researcher David Hughes from Pennsylvania State University reported that a parasitic fungus infects forest ants to fulfill its bidding. The fungus fills the ant’s head with fungal cells and changes its muscles so the ant can grab a leaf in a death grip just when and where the fungus wants it — specifically, they all bite down around noon, then all die together around sunset, like some weird fungus-addled ant cult. The fungus then bursts out of the ants’ head and spreads its spores to its next unwitting victim.
Another report in September found the genetic culprit that sends caterpillars to the treetops, where they liquefy and rain infectious death down on their peers. The virus that zombifies these gypsy moth caterpillars also makes sure they grow as large as possible so they spread infectious viruses far and wide, study researcher Kelli Hoover, of Pennsylvania State University, said. They also send the caterpillars crawling up trees in the middle of the day, when they are most vulnerable to bird attacks.
Credit: PLoS ONE