In 1859 British Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace ventured to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. He was collecting specimens when he happened upon a strange ant, far from its nest, stuck to a leaf. Wallace could’ve been forgiven had he suspected the ant was covering in webbing, given the mossy substance between its legs, but Wallace must’ve done a double take, because he spotted something odd. There was a tall growth, covered with strange bulbs, protruding from the ants’ skull. Wallace realized this growth was a fungus, a fungus that would be dubbed Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (or cordyceps for short).
Wallace visited the Amazon and found two more specimens suffering from the same infection that plagued the Indonesian ant. He might have discovered a mass grave had he tracked down the rest of the colony.
Cordycep spores stick to ants, break through their exoskeletons, and mutate their physiology. This parasitic fungus compels the ant, against its own interests, to climb a plant and secure itself. The fungus liquefies the ant’s insides, erupts from its skull, and sprays its spores. Cordycep devastate entire colonies at a time.
In 2006 the BBC aired an episode of Planet Earth featuring a segment called Attack of the Killer Fungi. This segment introduced Wallace’s zombie fungus to mainstream audiences. Continue reading When Writers Show Up to the Party in the Same Dress