The dirty German Messel Pit – home to one of the world’s most splendid fossil collections, is at it again, this time producing startling new evidence of a devilish parasitic fungus, from deep within an ancient German forest.
The ant-possessing fungus, still alive today, lives mid way between the canopy and forest floor, where it once attached itself to carpenter ants as they sauntered home to their forest canopy families.
This fiendish green blanket is known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, and is believed to have grown inside the ants before releasing powerful alkaloids that took control of their behaviour.
Harvard scientists found the evidence on 48-million-year-old leaves, which revealed “death grip” jaw markings made by the possessed arthropods. Research leader, Dr David Hughes, says graveyards of 20 or 30 ants on specific leaves suggest the fungus thrived at a particular height, where conditions were peachy.
The impression would have been one of ‘ant zombies’, where the insects staggered around in a robotic stupor before clamping down ferociously on the leaves like crazed pit bulls. Others simply fell to their deaths below before sprouting fungus spores from their heads, resembling saggy wild African tea bags.
Dr Hughes says he is startled by the force of the ant bites, which left distinct markings on the leaves. He adds he is fascinated over the ability of the parasitic fungus to take complete control of the host before killing it, as it’s “the first example of behavioural manipulation”.
Scientists are still unsure how the fungus controlled the ants, although Jack Bucket, from the Society of Ancient Fungus Entities (SAFE), gives a clue. He says this vast forest rogue operates on an entirely different time scale, as what was likely a moment of fungal venting over inadequate shade conditions has translated into a 48-million-year ordeal that has utterly devastated the ant.