Ophiocordyceps unilateralis

Zombie Ants, Man! Zombie Feckin' Ants!

bobo, Going Postal
Ants biting the underside of leaves as a result of infection by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis
David P. Hughes, Maj-Britt Pontoppidan – Licence CC BY 2.5

Yes, there are two paths you can go by. But in the long run there’s still time to change which road you’re on. – Lao Tzu

There exists in nature a particularly blasphemous little organism which goes by the name of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis and which lives the South American rainforest . It is a fungus. To be taxonomically precise it is a member of the kingdom Fungi, of the Ascomycota phylum of the Fungi, of the order Hypocreales and of the family Ophiocordycipitaceae. As any fule kno.

Most members of the Ophiocordycipitaceaen family lead a blameless existence . Beginning life as a spore ejected from the reproductive structure of the parent body, they drift lazily on the breeze until at last they settle onto dead vegetable matter, which they break down to absorb as nutrient in order to grown their own structure and at length the cycle begins anew. As I say, utterly unobjectionable. But not O. unilateralis. This little chap has chosen a very different modus operandi indeed.

Before we go any further I should probably clearly state my position as regards Fungi. I am not, it has to be said, a huge fan. Button or Chestnut mushrooms have their place in a pizza topping, and there’s good eating on a Portobello if you can work up the courage. But on the whole the more exotic varieties of edible fungi are not at all my cup of tea.

Of course, one does not wish to generalise. There may be as many as four million species of Fungi, and their variety of physical appearance is staggering. Some fungi are beautiful, and one or two species are truly magical in their own way. Allegedly.

But people who fall for the whole River Cottage schtick and go out foraging for wild mushrooms are asking for trouble, in my humble opinion. For every species of edible mushroom in the UK there is at least one mimic, which only the expert eye can distinguish, and which is packed full of sufficient mycotoxins to guarantee the consumer thereof a perimortem experience which involves the intestines exiting the body via the ears. Death by mycotoxin is protracted, spectacularly unpleasant and there are only rarely antidotes.

Every year sees a crop of Townies newly moved to the country, togged out in Laura Ashley and Barbour and with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest under their arm, gambolling blithely through the woods and harvesting stuff that any local would tell them not to touch with a blinking barge-pole.

They skip back to the Grade II listed with the half timbers and the thatched roof, sprinkle what they are pretty sure are Chanterelles into the cassoulet and, congratulating themselves on the ‘authenticity of their lifestyle’, sit down to their last meal. Where there are survivors of these funeral teas, an astonishingly high percentage recall that the party laughed about how awful it would be if, by some outside chance, they had mis-identified the ‘shrooms. If I am about to dine with somebody who then jokes about the consequences of a mistaken ingredient in the ensuing repast, I make my excuses and leave. A sound rule of thumb, you will find.

Furthermore if you are ever tempted to eat wild mushrooms, first soak one in salt and water for ten minutes and see what floats to the surface. You could argue that it’s all additional protein but not for me, thank you very much. I like ’em grown in chemical compost under sterile conditions. Much safer.

Thus my thoughts on mushrooms. Armed neutrality sums up my attitude best, I think. Now back to business.

When a spore of O. unilateralis first mounts the zephyr Amazonian, it is not looking for a patch of humus in which to root. Oh no, this little chap has far grander ambitions than this; far grander and far, far darker.

Under ideal conditions the spore lodges on the exoskeleton of a particular species of ant, the Carpenter ant. The spore releases enzymes which dissolve through the complex layers of chitinous plates which make up the ant’s armour, and eventually comes into contact with the ant’s bloodstream. When it does so it releases cells into the bloodstream which reproduce and join together. These cells start to penetrate through the ant’s musculature, and thus through its entire body.

At this point the ant’s behavior begins to change. It leaves the nest and climbs the nearest plant stalk to a height of 25cm,  at which temperature and humidity are perfect for the next generation of spores to thrive. The ant then locks it’s mandible around a plant vein and the fungus drives a long stalk through the ant’s brain and out through it’s skull, which kills the ant in situ. The stalk develops a bulbous sac at the external end, and from this eventually emanate the spores. As the ant had crawled above but not far from the nest entrance, these spores are in an excellent position from which to infect yet more ants.

‘It is absolutely necessary’ A.A.Milne reminds us in The Doom That Came To Hundred Acre Wood,  ‘for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.’

Consider the implications of the life cycle of O. unilateralis. To put it simply, it hijacks the ant’s mind. Consider that. An organism, which is so primitive that it evolved in the Neoproterozoic era a Billion years ago, can take over the mind of a creature which is very many magnitudes of complexity greater than itself, ants having evolved some one hundred and fifty million years ago during the comparatively up to date and trendy Cretaceous period.

I have no problem with the Theory of Evolution. It is spotty in places, but it is supported by the record. And the greatest thing in its favour is the lack of radical change in the process. Darwin was originally alerted to the hypothesis by the study of the finch populations of two islands in the Galapagos peninsula. He noticed that the average beak length of the finches on one island was fractionally larger than the other, and he attributed this to differences in the flora of the two islands which gave the larger beaked finches an advantage on their territory.

It was not that one group were the size of London buses and could breath fire and that the others were still small, but had learnt to cooperate in furtive groups to mug travelers for their technology which they would then adapt to their own purposes in their cavernous lairs. Evolution does not work like that. Evolution is the infinitesimally incremental, the statistically minute. You plop out a clutch of three finch eggs. One chick has a beak a fraction of a millimeter larger than its nest mates. This will give it just the edge to eat that little bit better and maybe, just maybe, live long enough to plop out that extra clutch of large billed finches. This is perfectly sensible.

But look at O. unilateralis. First of all it was content to mark time for nine hundred million years until ants evolved. Then, at some point in the Lower Cretaceous a spore of O. unilateralis landed on an ant for the first time. What happened next can be explained in two ways. Firstly that the required mechanism was already latent in the spore. In other words that something in the spore’s DNA woke up and said ‘Hang on. I know what this is. It’s an ant! Activate chitin digesting enzymes! Release ant muscle penetrating cells! It’s time to Rock ‘n’ Roll!’.

The other explanation would be that nothing happened, but that over a period of time sufficient spores landed on sufficient ants and evolved to be able to pierce the armour. Presumably then the armour piercing spores would then have had to evolve to release the cells, then the cells evolve to take over the body and the mind and then to learn to ‘drive’ the ant, as it were, to the desired location. It took me three goes to get my driving licence, which should put things into perspective.

Neither stands out as a clear favourite. Bear in mind that the parasitism of the ant is an essential part of O. unilateralis’s reproductive strategy. The first assumes that O. unilateralis was content for the best part of a Billion years to reproduce by rooting in compost, but knew that ants would evolve and was ready to make the switch. The second would seem to imply that fungal spores can, over time, evolve to parasitize anything.

Occasionally the smiling, beneficent mask of Nature slips and for just a second the vast, howling abyssal gulfs of black insanity that lie behind it are revealed to our flinching human minds. Mankind, we reliably inform ourselves, is the crown of creation. We are not the fastest, the biggest or the strongest of all living things. But we are the smartest. A virus can kill us, to say nothing of tigers, sharks and dunny spiders to name but a very few. But none can out think us. Our mind is our supreme asset and is inviolate. Bar ergot and Rabies, which induce insanity, our consciousness has never been attacked. Our control over our own bodies has never been under dispute. But once establish a principle, and all you have to do subsequently is negotiate the extent. We can no longer take our sovereignty of our selves for granted.

For a ghastly moment, consider the thing from the ant’s perspective. An ant has consciousness. It has a rudimentary brain and CNS. It responds to stimuli through its eyes, antennae and the follicles on its body. They can communicate with their fellows. Whilst in no way comparable to a human consciousness, we can at least assume an ant feels pretty real to himself.

The spore, on the other hand, has the consciousness of a brick. It cannot know anything. Its repertoire of responses to environmental stimuli extend to thriving in appropriate conditions and dying in those that are not. End of. It is incapable of voluntary movement, for God’s sake. It cannot perceive light or sound, but yet it can take over and direct the movements of a creature which can do all those things. How, in the name of Reason, so? It can utilise and manipulate to its own advantage mechanisms which it is utterly incapable of comprehending. It does not even have a concept of self, yet it can manipulate a higher organism to do things in its own self interest.

I do not have my copy of Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae to hand as I write. Chiefly because one looks like such a turnip dragging a bookcase into the pub. But our understanding of the natural order of being is a top down hierarchy based essentially on superior intelligence. Humans may never evolve to be as big and ferocious as lions, but we have evolved to create fire arms whereas no lion is ever likely to produce a knock-off of a Kalashnikov. Opposable thumbs also enter into it.

Right. Look. The gaffer’s about to call time. At this comparatively late stage in our acquaintance I shouldn’t have to spoon feed you, but lets try approaching the issue from another angle. Let us assume that I myself am host to a psychic parasite, and let us say that the parasite is an ant. The ants have learned the technique and are now hijacking humans. Why the Dickens not? Thus I wake one morning, conscious but not in control of my faculties. The ant is in charge.

What would he want to do with the day, the ant? The breakfast crocks having been washed and put away and the hoover having been given a whoosh around the more visible parts of the Axminster, what use would he then make of the golden hours of idleness that lie before him? Would he take the Civic for a spin to Homebase to price up a new patio set? Would he decide to spend a few hours at the County Records Office annoying the archivist? Would he go for a walk round the local park at the same time as the New Mums’ Outdoors (Weather Permitting) Yogacise Group do their thing?

He would not. He would not because he could not comprehend any of those activities. The capabilities of his host organism so far exceed his own that even the simplest of them is utterly beyond his ken.

It also occurs to me to wonder what the wife would make of this startling matutinal metamorphosis. Who knows but that she might not actually be in favour? I understand that life with me can sometimes be something of a trial. Still, an Englishman’s home is his castle, and what goes on between a man and his wife is nobody’s business but their own.

And that, my friend, is my final word on the subject.

Ho! Landlord! A flagon of your choicest foaming ale, forsooth!

Sod it. Make it two.

And a Jaegermeister.

© Bobo 2019

The Goodnight Vienna Audio file