On a cold January morning, a road sign read, "ZOMBIES AHEAD!"
Updated: Tuesday, 12 May 2009, 6:51 PM CDT
Published : Tuesday, 12 May 2009, 5:24 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Zombie fire ants may sound like a science-fiction movie, but they are the real deal for University of Texas, Austin and Texas A&M researchers.
Their science experiments will help control the ant population.
Tiny parasites called Phorid flies attack fire ants, take over their bodies and turn them into walking zombies.
"The reason why they're called zombie ants is because they have a slightly different behavior once they're infected," said Lawrence Gilbert, Director of Brackenridge field lab.
Fire ants are not the only things in nature that are affected by mind-controlling parasites. Snails and rats also get parasites that give them suicidal tendencies. The snails, specifically, grow large tentacles which attract birds. The bird rips off the snail's tentacles which cannot be withdrawn because of the sporocystes tubes inside. Inside the bird's digestive tract the cercaries change into the parasite's adult stage, which then reproduces sexually and lays eggs. Those are distributed by the bird to infect further snails, which closes the generation cycle.
Below is a behind-the-scenes look at the lab of zombie ants:
Infected zombie ants do not get suicidal tendencies, but they do mysteriously wander away from their colony. Their deaths are truly out of a horror flick. The fly's larva begins to hatch inside the ants, eat their brains and then the ants’ heads fall off.
The sci-fi sounding attack is actually part of nature.
“When we went to South America to study parasites of fire ants we found so many different kinds,” said Gilbert.
Below is a National Geographic special on the parasite and shows how it affects the ants:
Researchers have released four types of Phorid flies across Central Texas. They are hoping to release more. So far, they believe the results are promising.
Researchers do not think the parasites will eradicate fire ants from Central Texas for good, but they do think the Phorid flies will help to keep fire ants under control.