Here’s one that I didn’t touch on in DISCOVER’s creepy gallery of zombie animals controlled by mind-altering parasites: A parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis that infects a plain old carpenter ant and takes over its brain, leading the ant to bite into the vein that runs down the center of a leaf on the underside. The ant dies shortly thereafter, but the fungus gains the nutrients it needs to grow this crazy stalk out of the ant’s body and release spores to create the next generation of ant-controlling fungi.
This cryptic cycle has been going on for at least 48 million years.
In a study forthcoming in Biology Letters, Harvard’s David Hughes argues that a fossilized leaf found in a fossil-rich part of Germany’s Rhine Rift Valley bears the scars of the ant’s trademark death bite. The ant bites down hard so the fungus will have a stable position when it grows a stalk out of the ant’s head. But even so, Hughes says, he doubted the mark would turn up in the fossil record—that is, until serendipity reared its random head: