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The Rampage of the Zombie Ant

fire ant

By Georgie McDonald

It’s at this time of year, when the skies are dark and ominous and the gales rattle our windows at night, that the horrific story of an innocent fly and a biting fire ant comes out of the shadows. Fire ants have a bad public persona as they are one of the 285 species of stinging ants worldwide. Although they are not commonly known to kill humans, unless the victim is highly allergic to the venom, they are branded the most vicious ants in the world. The Queen is the largest ant of the colony and can produce up to 3,500 eggs in a single day, which is roughly 9 million fire ants in her life time. Now it certainly would be unfortunate to come across ferocious biting ants in those numbers.

The phorid fly is one of the few predators of the tiny but vicious fire ant. The fly doesn’t kill the ant just for fun, but it uses the ant’s body as its reproduction strategy. The fly will hover over the ant to inject an egg by piercing the ant’s thorax. The larva then crawls through the ant’s body looking for food and – it finds the ant’s brain. Just like something out of a horror film, the larva slurps up the brain and the ant turns into a zombie. The larva is able to direct the ant up to 55 feet away from the ant colony to prevent the worker ants killing the infected zombie ant and hence the phorid fly larvae. Then, using the phorid flies to target the ants, the fly maggot decapitates the host so it can be set free. But to not to waste the effort of scooping out the brains of the ant, the larva uses the hollowed-out head for protection to develop into a pupa. To reach the intermediate stage between a lava and an adult fly, the pupa incubates in the ant for around 40 days.

The fire ant has become an invasive pest in South America, Australia and China, and costs the countries millions of dollars each year to eradicate the colonies as well as treating those who are stung. It has therefore become a mission globally to reduce the fire ant populations and what better way to do that than through the gruesome torture the Phorid flies put the ant through! The phorid flies have been widely introduced into infested states such as Texas and Alabama as a promising way to cut back the ant colonies. This biological control wouldn’t be an efficient method by itself as the flies kill very few ants at a time. However, scientists are discovering that the ants seem to be ‘scared’ of the flies, which disrupts their feeding habits when they spot their predator. This then has a knock on effect as the rate of growth of the ant populations dramatically slows down.

Photography: agrilifetoday on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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2 Responses to The Rampage of the Zombie Ant

  1. Dina 5U says:

    Now that’s a bit creepy. At least I’m right: zombies do exist! Just…ant zombies. …it still counts xD

  2. Georgie says:

    These phorid flies aren’t the only ones turning ants into zombies, a fungus does it as well! Check out this link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/mar/02/fungi-zombie-ants-amazon

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