Mind Bomb 15: A zombie ant perspective of the Cordyceps infection
You have no control over your body. Your behaviour is drastically different. You are disorientated, confused, and you no longer seem to have any willpower.
Many think you are dead, your loved one's think you are still alive - your soul still somewhere inside this vessel of a rotting corpse. Whatever it may be, one thing is certain, you only want to satisfy your desire to eat other humans and spread the virus...
Now while I have placed you in a first person perspective on what it is like to be human zombie, it is ultimately just fiction.
We have always been intrigued by alternate version of ourselves - as zombies, vampires, mermaids, and others - a mechanism I believe we use to escape the mundane lifestyle.
However, deep in Earth's jungles where 80% of all insects live and thrive, the threat of a zombie apocalypse is not only real, but an established fact of life.
Zombies are real.
On this special Halloween edition of Mind Bomb, I will put you in a perspective on an ant infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and show you the following events that will cause the collapse of an entire ant colony.
You are a hard working ant, and life is like clockwork, you just work in service to your queen and the entire colony.
One day, you are tasked to find new sources of food. This task has brought you to a new territory, one untouched by the wrath of your colony.
Successful in your find, your return was followed by a second group of ants who followed the pheromones you left behind en route to the source to confirm your findings. Of course, they optimised the route on the way back, making such that the colony will take the shortest route possible.
This started the usually work line, and you join the force to contribute. As the line progresses towards the source, you start to feel confused. You begin to walk out of line, something that has never happened to you.
You fight to stay on course, but you begin disorientated, and soon you find yourself wandering outside of the line and into the jungle. And not before long, you gingerly make your way back to the nest, a short journey since you have not made it that far along the line.
You tried to fight it, but by this time, it is as though you are in a dream - somewhat aware, but not in control. You start to move up a nearby stem, not aware of what's going on below.
Below, ants that were part of the second group that confirmed your source are carried away by other ants. They seemed dead or paralysed as they are carried further and further away from the nest, most likely never to be seen again.
As you make your way some 25cm up, you instinctively bite down o the main vein of the nearest leaf with your mendibles - and there you lay to rest...
In a period of up to 3 weeks, a stem growth out of your head - something strikingly similar to a tombstone. As it grows, the stem releases spores that will fall down to the nest below, where members of your colony will get infected when the spores are absorbed into their skin.
As the parasitic fungus spark an epidemic within the colony, ants found to be infected will be exiled by the colony and be forced out of the colony area in a bid to minimise the spread. However, it was too little too late, and soon what was once the home of a mighty colony made from hundreds of thousands of ants is now a mass graveyard.
The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a terrifying thing, but it is one that is essential in "maintaining the balance" of the Jungle. If you noticed, the title says "the Cordyceps Infection". This is because the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a type of Cordyceps that affect only ants.
The Ophinocordyceps unilateralis has no effect on other insects such as moths. However, each insect species is vunerable to a specific type of Cordyceps that will cause a disaster like the one described above - serving the purpose of maintaining the population size of each community. When one becomes too big, the impact of the Cordyceps is more intense, thus reducing the population size considerably.
Check out this short from BBC's Cordyceps: Attack of the Killer Fungi
Zombie-like effects of the Cordyceps taking over the entire human population are still fiction - One that we explore with movies such as World War Z and games such as The Last of Us. The Last of Us is something you should definitely check out as it shows us what will happen when we are vulnerable to Cordyceps. It is a game, so if you can't play it, check out the game playthrough by TheRadBrad.
But who knows for sure? One day, Mother Nature may take control of her world back and reduce our population to a more "manageable" level.