For ants, an enemy of their enemy
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SINDYA N. BHANOO
Like something out of a horror movie, the zombie-ant fungus attacks and invades the brains of carpenter ants. Possessed ants march to their death, and the fungus lives inside the exoskeleton.
Now, a new study reports that the zombie-ant fungus itself faces attack by another fungus. This secondary attacker, a white fungus, is "looking for its own lunch, and it thinks this dead ant is a nice thing to eat, along with the fungus that's eating the ant," said David Hughes, a disease biologist at Penn State and one of the authors. This attack prevents the spores of the zombie-ant fungus from spreading and infecting other ants in the colony, Hughes said. "Looking at the colony, it's a good thing for the ants," he said. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
It takes about three to nine days for ants to die after the zombie-ant fungus attacks. A month or two later, the white fungus might come along and attack the parasite growing from its remains, Hughes said.
He and his colleagues studied carpenter ants in the rain forests of Brazil and southern Thailand. There are more than a thousand species of carpenter ants throughout the world.
The intertwined lives of the fungi and the ants illustrate just how complex relationships are, Hughes said. This may be particularly true in rain forest settings, since there is no winter season in which food sources might diminish.
"So life just becomes a nonstop hunt for lunch," Hughes said. "We really haven't gotten to the bottom of the complex interactions that are going on there."
The study appears in the journal PLoS One
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