Thanks to hit television shows like The Walking Dead and movies like World War Z, the zombie genre has never been more popular. But what if I told you zombies were absolutely real—and even more skin-crawling than the fiction writers would have you believe? Just take a look at science writer Matt Simon’s new book, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar.
The book is named after Glyptapanteles, a wasp that Jedi-mind-tricks caterpillars into serving as head-banging bodyguards for its brood. And that’s after the wasp babies have slurped up most of the caterpillar’s insides and then popped out of its chest like some terrifying Jack-in-the-Box. In fact, if you look across the natural world, you’ll find all manner of real life monsters, from blood-sucking vampires and head-invading aliens to creatures with smiles that would put a Demogorgon to shame.
But the zombifying wasp that made Simon’s cover isn’t even his favorite horror show in the book. For that, you’d have to turn towards something truly diabolical: a fungus called Ophiocordyceps. “The life cycle of this fungus is astonishing,” says Simon. Unless, of course, you happen to be an ant.
The Real Walking Dead
It all begins when a single spore falls out of the sky, a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
When the spore lands on an ant, it immediately begins dissolving the animal’s exoskeleton with enzymes. But it’s also building up an incredible amount of pressure—equal to that of a 747’s tire. When the shell is weak enough, the spore explodes into the ant’s body cavity and starts claiming territory. “At which point the ant is pretty much done for,” says Simon.
Over the next three weeks, the fungus will come to make up about half of the ant’s total weight. One would think the slow internal consumption must be excruciating, but whether the ant feels anything is unclear. It goes about its ant-life as normal.
Indeed, this is crucial to the fungus’s plot. If the ant’s nest-mates notice something is awry, they’ll carry the infected ant away before it can release its spores—a performance the parasite only gets one chance at.
So, when the time is right—which, weirdly, is almost always high-noon on the 21st day of infection—the fungus will pilot its zombie ant out of the colony. Once outside, the ant will climb a piece of vegetation until it is 10 inches off of the ground, a height where temperature and moisture are conducive to fungal growth. The ant then clasps the twig or grass stalk with its mandibles and sighs its last excruciating breath.
“At that point the fungus dispatches it and erupts out of the back of the ant’s head as a stalk,” says Simon. “And this just so happens to be positioned exactly above the ant colony’s trails.”