"There is no single compound that is produced that results in the exquisite control of ant behavior we observe," de Bekker said. "Rather, it is a mixture of different chemicals that we assume act in synergy.
"But whatever the precise blend and tempo of chemical secretion," she said, "it is impressive that these fungi seem to 'know' when they are beside the brain of their regular host and behave accordingly."
Noted Hughes, "This is one of the most complex examples of parasites controlling animal behavior because it is a microbe controlling an animal -- the one without the brain controls the one with the brain. By employing metabolomics and controlled laboratory infections, we can now begin to understand how the fungi pull off this impressive trick."
The research also is notable, the scientists contend, because it is the first extensive study of zombie ants in North America. Typically assumed to be a tropical phenomenon, they exist in temperate habitats but can be hard to find.
"This whole project has been made possible by Kim Fleming, a resident of Donalds, South Carolina, an avid nature photographer who found the original samples and posted pictures of them online," said Hughes.
"It has been a joy to work with Kim, who has become an integral part of our team taking thousands of photos of the zombie ant fungi during her daily walk in the woods."
He noted that the newly discovered species of zombie ant fungus will be named after Fleming, who is a co-author on the study.
"Through Kim, we have been able to engage with the wider community in South Carolina, including the biology program at Erskine College," said de Bekker. "It's been a great way to share our science with the public."
|Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer|