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Four new species of zombie ant fungi – another step forward for open-access taxonomy

Zombie fungi have always ranked high on my list of irresistibly interesting yet disturbing organisms. Though these fungi infect a wide range of arthropod hosts, today’s victim is the ant. When an ant is infected, members of its colony rapidly dump the victim as far away from the colony as possible. The reason for this harsh treatment soon becomes clear. The fungus manipulates the ant’s behavior, causing it to climb to a prime location for spore dispersal before killing the ant. What comes next has the makings of a low-budget sci-fi flick. The fungus slowly emerges from the ant’s head, culminating in a fruiting body from which deadly spores emerge.

Dead ants infected with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (from PLoS ONE 4(3): e4835. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004835)

In an article published today in PLoS ONE, researchers Harry Evans, Simon Elliot, and David Hughes describe four new Brazilian species of zombie fungi. The characterization of these morbidly fascinating organisms is a worthy feat in its own right. However, this article also marks another milestone for both mycologists and PLoS ONE. This is the first paper to publish new fungal species names in an online journal in compliance with the rules and recommendations of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), the body that governs the naming of new plant and fungal species.

This is a very important step for taxonomists in the transition from print to online-only publishing. In 2010, Sandra Knapp published a pioneering paper in PLoS ONE of four new plant species, which we also highlighted in an everyONE post. By doing so, she provided the first test-case for how new plant species can be published online whilst adhering to the strict botanical code. The account of her experience and the challenges taxonomists face is also told in an aptly titled, and freely available, article from Taxon, the journal of the International Association of Plant taxonomy (“Run for your lives! End of the World!” – Electronic publication of new plant names).

As for Sandra’s paper, we are proud that PLoS ONE can now provide a similar test case – and another important step – for new fungal names.

Beyond this milestone, the paper is noteworthy for drawing attention to undiscovered, complex biological interactions in threatened habitats. The new species in this paper were all discovered in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot that has been reduced to only ten percent of its original size. The species are members of the genus Ophiocordyceps, which infect tropical ants in the tribe Camponotini, the carpenter ants. Each fungal species is specialized to infect a single ant species, with morphological adaptations to ensure infection. The identification tools proposed in this study allow researchers to further explore the ecology of this interesting taxon and address questions of how forest fragmentation affects species interactions and dynamics.

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