Paranormal biofantasy: zombie ants, hungry vampires

Paul Raven @ 18-08-2010

I pretty much never talk about the “paranormal romance” or “urban fantasy” tropes here at Futurismic, partly because they rarely say much about the real future in anything more than very vague metaphorical terms (the ubiquity of the shambling undead as a symbol of the subliminal horror of a greying society where the elderly prey on the financial vitality of the young and healthy?), and partly because talking about vampires and zombies and werewolves in the genre blogosphere is a bit like whispering your shopping list in the mosh-pit at a Slayer gig.

But put the roots of those tropes into some sort of scientific context, and I’m all over it like the tribal tattoo on an ass-kicking heroine’s lower back. So, ladies and gentlemen: zombie ants. Zombie ants that have been mind-controlled by a parasitic fungus for nearly fifty million years.

The finding shows that parasitic fungi evolved the ability to control the creatures they infect in the distant past, even before the rise of the Himalayas.

The fungus, which is alive and well in forests today, latches on to carpenter ants as they cross the forest floor before returning to their nests high in the canopy.

The fungus grows inside the ants and releases chemicals that affect their behaviour. Some ants leave the colony and wander off to find fresh leaves on their own, while others fall from their tree-top havens on to leaves nearer the ground.

The final stage of the parasitic death sentence is the most macabre. In their last hours, infected ants move towards the underside of the leaf they are on and lock their mandibles in a “death grip” around the central vein, immobilising themselves and locking the fungus in position.

OK, so the fate of rainforest bugs and freaky fungi may not seem all that existentially terrifying, but symbiosis occurs elsewhere – remember toxoplasma, the cat parasite that may (be sure to emphasise the ‘may’) be responsible for human neurotic behaviour patterns?

And in deepest darkest Peru, no one is finding vampirism sparkly and smoulderingly attractive (yet strangely supportive of Christianised notions of sexual abstinence and submissive femininity): swarms of vampire bats are on the rampage, and have attacked more than 500 people. The only immortality that bite is going to give you is a third page sidebar in your local paper as the first person to die of rabies in living memory.