Nature is Metal

Look: 50-million-year-old fossil captures a parasitic phenomenon

Trapped in amber is a gruesome end that still happens to some insects today.

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George Poinar Jr., OSU

Here’s a gnarly way to die: infected by a parasite that sprouts a mushroom from your rectum.

George Poinar Jr., OSU

That’s what happened to this fossilized carpenter ant, which was described in a paper recently published in the journal Fungal Biology.

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But parasitic fungi aren’t just a thing of the past.

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Ever heard of zombie ants? That’s the nickname given to carpenter ants that fall victim to a genus of fungi known as Ophiocordyceps.

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Before the ant meets its inevitable death, the fungus hijacks its muscular functions. This causes the ant to mull around in a zombified state, acting erratically and separating itself from the colony.

David P. Hughes and Maj-Britt Pontoppidan/PLOS One

In its final act, one species of fungus convinces the ant to crawl onto a leaf and bite down with a death grip.

Then a massive fungus grows out of the ant’s head or neck and releases spores into the air, infecting other ants.

And the cycle of death continues.

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George Poinar Jr., OSU

While it has a similar parasitic tendency as Ophiocordyceps, the fossilized fungus described in the paper represents a newly-discovered genus and species of fungi.

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The researchers named it Allocordyceps baltica.

It’s preserved in amber that is nearly 50 million years old — meaning ants and fungi have a relationship that goes way back.

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The big difference between Allocordyceps and Ophiocordyceps: the ancient fungus grows from the ant’s rectum, while the ones we see today usually target the head or neck.

Maj-Britt Pontoppidan and David P. Hughes/PLOS One

Regardless, what these fungi do to their host ants is true nightmare fuel.

Read more stories about animals here.

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