When I came across the Science News article “Death-Grip Fungus Made Me Do It” (2) last week, the title alone intrigued me enough to follow the link. Then I saw the picture of an ant with a large orange spike protruding out of its head. It looked like something out of a bad horror movie, and I recognized it immediately. You see, over the last several months my family has rented and watched the Planet Earth DVD series, and by far our most- and least-liked episode graphically chronicled the fate of ants infected with the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. These ants climb upwards, bite into a leaf (or twig or branch) and die. A fungal spike grows out of the ant’s neck and releases its spores. Watched with sped-up, time-elapsed photography, it is rather horrifying.
The Science News article I found was inspired by a paper in the September issue of American Naturalist (2). An international team of researchers report on research that suggests the parasitic fungus may actually manipulate its host so that it climbs to a level that will be most advantageous for the released spores. When you think about it, it is amazing that infection with a tiny spore could compel a creature to crawl ~25cm off the jungle floor, bite a leaf and die.
Everyone in my family had a different reaction to the “ant” episode of Planet Earth. My youngest felt bad for the cute little ant. Her brother watched the whole thing through the cracks between his fingers; horrified but unable to look away. I was fascinated. My husband looked at me and asked “Didn’t they have an X-Files episode like this?” I think he is right.
We’ve all experienced our share of “bad science” on TV, in movies and in books. But sometimes it seems that nature gives us science “bad” enough on its own that you would think it is fiction. How cool is that?
Do you have a “Science is better than fiction” story? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear it.
- milus, S. (2009) Death-Grip Fungus Made Me Do It. Science News 176, 12.
- Anderson, S.B. et al. (2009) The life of a dead ant: The expression of an adaptive extended phenotype. Am Nat. 174, 424-33).
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