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Halloween Highlight 2011: An Author Spotlight with David Hughes and Harry Evans

Zombie ant jack o’ lantern

In the spirit of Halloween, we’ve asked Dr. David Hughes of Penn State University and  Dr. Harry Evans of  Federal University of Viçosa Brazil to share with us a bit about their manuscript, Hidden Diversity Behind the Zombie-Ant FungusOphiocordyceps unilateralis: Four New Species Described from Carpenter Ants in Minas Gerais, Brazil.   Both were kind enough to oblige and share with us their perspective via email.

The description of ants as zombies is not a pitch to popularity-even at Halloween-  but an orchestrated attempt to identify fungal-infected ants as very different from other ants in the society. Just because something looks, walks and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it is actually a duck. The sinister thing about parasites which manipulate host behavior is that they can easily go unnoticed. The zombie ant moniker forces us to recall that we are looking at two organisms and the ant is not in the driving seat.

Our study in PLoS ONE, which used micromorphology together with spore function to delimit and describe new species, came about as it was obvious that the diversity of zombie ant fungi must be  higher than previously supposed because ant species diversity is high. We know that ants differ in many important behaviors which of course is due to brain differences. So, if your evolutionary gambit is brain control, then diverse brains will act as diverse selection environments leading to different species. Perhaps the most exciting thing is that we now recognize that these initial descriptions are just the tip of a very large iceberg and that many more zombie-inducing fungi await discovery, especially in tropical forests such as the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest in which we set our study.

In March, our editor wrote an overview of this paper.  To see last year’s Halloween post, click here.

Image by Roel Fleuren and pumpkin carving by Charissa de Bekker.

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