In the 1950s and early ‘60s, the Brazilian Amazon was a favorite setting for many Hollywood B movies. The vast primeval rainforest proved to be an extremely fertile tabula rasa onto which the loopiest cinematic imaginings could be projected.
Among some of the more fantastical inhabitants of Hollywood’s Brazilian Amazon were a primitive Gill-man (Creature from the Black Lagoon); ferocious, green female Amazon warriors (Love Slaves of the Amazon); a bird-like monster (Curucu, Beast of the Amazon); a cult of “jaguar” men (Tarzan and the Great River); and a two-mile column of giant army ants (The Naked Jungle).It turns out that a team of scientists have identified a new species of parasitic fungi that infect ants and take control of their brains – and bodies.
The latter film in particular flickered through my mind earlier this week when I came across an NY Daily News article that had all the ingredients of a great jungle-horror flick including exploding heads, zombie ants, and brain-controlling fungi. Like the aforementioned films, all these elements can be found in the Brazilian rainforests, but unlike the aforementioned films, they are real, not fictitious.
It turns out that a team of scientists have identified a new species of parasitic fungi that infect ants and take control of their brains – and bodies. The goal of this forced mind control is so to steer the ants around the jungle in search of an ideal spot – the undersides of certain leaves – for the fungi to reproduce. With the fungus in control of the ant’s leg muscles, the ant is forced to zigzag drunkenly across the jungle floor in a manner reminiscent of a zombie. It’s not uncommon for some ants to fall down or be seized with convulsions.
Once the fungus has honed in on a promising leaf, it forces the ant to bite into its principal vein. These bites always occur around midday, which means that the fungi synchronize their operations with the sun. By this time, its head clogged with fungal cells, the ant’s jaws have become atrophied. As a result of having lost mobility, once it has bitten into the leaf, the ant can’t open its jaws again, and is stuck there, paralyzed, until nightfall.
“Although ants bite at noon they don’t in fact die until sunset,” explains David Hughes, an entomologist from Pennsylvania State University, in a report published on LiveScience.com, “Likely this strategy ensures (the fungus) has a long cool night ahead of it during which time it can literally burst out of the ant’s head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk.”
While waiting for the onset of dusk, the fungi spend the afternoon soaking up most of the calcium out of the ants’ tiny bones. As a result, the equivalent of rigor mortis has usually set in by the time the ants’ heads explode. Talk about a great concept for a movie.