The Story of Zombie Ants: How Can a Fungal Parasite Control Animal Behavior?
Dr. Charissa de Bekker
Assistant Professor of Biology
University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
Parasites are all around us. Some of those parasites co-evolved closely together with their hosts and have come up with intricate ways to exploit that host for their own benefit. In nature, we can find many examples of parasites that have evolved the ability to manipulate host behavior. These manipulations range from slightly altered existing behaviors to the establishment of completely novel ones that are not part of the regular repertoire.
One of the most dramatic examples of the latter is that of the zombie ants.
Here, a fungal parasite takes complete control of the behavior of a Carpenter ant, guiding it up the vegetation where it latches on in a final death grip. We use this parasite-host interaction as a model system to ask the question how a microbe can control an animal’s brain to change the behavioral output so precisely. Something, most neurologists will even agree on, is extremely difficult to do. Our research will therefore not only inform us about the mechanisms that these parasites use to manipulate their hosts, but also ultimately give an important insight into the regulation of behavior in general.
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