Zombifying Parasite Sniffs out Poison to Find Its Fire Ant Host

By Eliza Strickland | September 22, 2009 12:55 pm

fire-ants-2In an ironic twist, the weaponry of the fire ants that have invaded the American South is also their potential downfall. Entomologists have found that the fire ants’ venom contains chemical compounds that attract their natural foes, the parasitic phorid flies that turn ants into zombies before decapitating them.

The invasive red fire ants first came from South America by boat, and from their original disembarkation point in Mobile, Alabama, they have spread across the South, from Texas to Maryland. Their painful stings and their habit of shorting out electrical equipment make them a serious pest to humans, and biologists have been attempting to control their numbers by importing and distributing the parasitic phorid flies. But until now, researchers didn’t know how the flies homed in on the ants. So researcher Henry Fadamiro hooked electrodes up to the antennae of flies to investigate which of several stimuli prompted nerves to fire. By exposing the antennae to extracts from different ant glands and body parts, the researchers determined that juice from the venom glands got antennae buzzing [Science News].

The study, published in the journal Naturwissenschaften, could help researchers determine where populations of the flies have taken hold in the United States by giving them the ability to make fly traps with the attractive chemicals.

While the phorid flies aren’t thought to go after native insect species, they target the fire ants in a truly terrifying way. An adult fly lays its egg in an ant’s body, and the larva then migrates to the ant’s head and devours its brain from the inside. For several weeks the ant wanders aimlessly, until the larva is ready to pupate and begins to secrete enzymes that decapitate the ant. Scientists aren’t sure why the flies bother to cut off the head. It may serve as an escape pod from residual toxins in the near-empty body [Science News].

Related Content:
80beats: Parasitic Flies Turn Troublesome Fire Ants Into Wandering Zombies
80beats: Invasive “Crazy Ants” Disrupt Christmas Island’s Entire Ecosystem
80beats: Finally, a Predator to Control the Notorious Cane Toad: Meat Ants?
DISCOVER: Zombie Animals and the Parasites that Control Them

Image: USDA / Scott Bauer

  • bigjohn756

    Is there a similar phorid fly for creationists?

    Oh, sorry, that wouldn’t work. The flies eat brains.

  • Jim

    Ouch, bigjohn, do I sense a bit of bitterness and maybe a touch of insecurity? I mean, this story has nothing to do with creationism vs. evolution, yet you pop off with that. Do you stare all day long at your computer screen fuming in an egotistical rage just because other people, including many who are fascinated by science and all it’s incredible wonders and intricate workings, believe in something greater than themselves, and everything from a piece about parasitic ant-killers to an episode of Spongebob Squarepants sets off a verbal spar aimed at “the enemy”? C’mon, pard’ner, buck up a little, it’s going to be ok. All those people singing in church on Sunday morning aren’t going to bother you (unless you live right next door to a church and your window is stuck open). Maybe go out and get some fresh air, take a break from your vigil. I guarantee you that other atheists are at the lake today or maybe watching a basball game – why, there’s probably one in the stands right now sharing his nachos with ***gasp*** a Christian in the seat next to him!! I bet brother Darwin himself would want you to take a breather. I bet he even got up from his studies and smiled at another human being just out of kindness every once in awhile. Why so angry, so vile? I don’t want to delve too deep, but maybe you should ask yourself why.

    But I guess since you brought it up, it is amazing that a creature can and does do this to survive, home in on the poison of a pest and lay it’s eggs inside the body and it’s hatching young, controlling the ant like a zombie, then decapitate the head so that they can then escape the carcass. Hard to imagine something like that could just “happen”, even given enough time for all the parts to miraculously come together (oops, did I say “miraculously”? Is that a banned word on this website?). I like that extra explanation of why the fly larvae might decapitate the head, in order to protect themselves from toxins that may be in the trunk of the ant’s body. Incredible how evolution thought of that extra provision.

  • Teis

    Who are “the creator” that creates a creature that pierces it’s host, eats its way to the brain of the host, manipulates the host to a zombielike behavior and then finaly decapitates it.

    If that is what you are suggesting Jim, then that is – sick humor.

  • Julian

    @ previous posters: dumb, da-dumb dumb dumb!

    Quite an amazing adaptation, though.

  • fb36

    I think if the God exists then the horrible ways of killing in the animal world would mean
    “the all loving God” image created in Christianity is wrong also.
    Maybe God exists but does not really like us much as we tend to assume so easily! :-)

  • Erin

    Come on people this article is about nature at it’s best! There is nothing in it indicating God and creation. Animals survive anyway they can. This particular fly has an attraction to the fire ant. This way of living isn’t any crazier than a cheetach tripping it’s prey in order to eat or fungus taking over a tree’s moisture in order to grow and thrive. Nature works in it’s own way without assistance from mankind. If our creator made this particular fly then he also assisted it’s way of living. Appreciate whats around you and how it all ties together.

  • http://naturescape.biz Kathy

    I live where we have to deal with fire ants and would love to obtain this parasitic fly to help get rid of the ants. You can’t put poison out to kill them if your growing food or have livestock because it’s deadly. So, the fire ant takes over everywhere.

  • dave

    the problem was the christian troll jim who accused the first guy (who only made what i thought was a funny joke) who saw fit to then respond with a book as a response because his feelings were hurt. Grow up and learn to take a joke

  • B P Odom

    Dave, the problem is not the “Christian troll” Jim. Jim is not a troll and his response to an utterly gratuitous shot at creationists was thoughtful and witty in its own way, if a bit pedantic and repetitive (and revealing of an ignorance of the proper use of “it’s,” which means “it is”–whoa, that’s really pedantic of me). One does wonder why atheists feel compelled to take potshots any time evolution is brought up. Many religionists believe that there is no conflict between faith in God and a belief in evolution. The last Pope declared that “evolution is more than just a theory” and is “God’s way of doing things,” and there is no need to be more Christian than the Pope. But faith in God is certainly not necessary in order for one to believe that evolutionary theory is the best way to understand the origins and development of life. Where Jim breaks down is in his inability to avoid being so amazed at the evolution of the flies/ants that he deploys the word “miraculous.” Jim, there certainly is enough time for it to happen by chance–life arose some 4 billion years ago, and these things have evolved for hundreds of millions of them. That is a LOT of time, and there’s no need to drag “miraculous” into it in order to explain your amazement. (Indeed, that there is any life at all is the result of remote chances, and is just as amazing as this.) And it is just inane to say that evolution “thought” of doing this. Evolution is a process of random mutation followed by natural selection, not a process guided by an immanent purpose to reach some sort of predetermined end. The survival of the species is an ongoing focus that is never perfected. And we might add that if we take note of the strangely delicate and complex adaptation of means to ends here, we ought not to ignore the weirdly off-kilter adaptations like the horse’s hoof (actually the middle toenail) and the panda’s thumb (actually a wrist bone) that no sane “designer” would deploy, adaptations that show just how random the process is. There is as much inelegance of design in nature as there is elegance, although the process in all its myriad instantiations is indeed amazing, but not “miraculous.” Can’t we talk about evolution without bringing religion into it on either side?


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