Zombie ant death grip due to hypercontracted mandibular muscles

J Exp Biol. 2019 Jul 17;222(Pt 14):jeb200683. doi: 10.1242/jeb.200683.


There are numerous examples of parasites that manipulate the behavior of the hosts that they infect. One such host-pathogen relationship occurs between the 'zombie-ant fungus' Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato and its carpenter ant host. Infected ants climb to elevated locations and bite onto vegetation where they remain permanently affixed well after death. The mandibular muscles, but not the brain, of infected ants are extensively colonized by the fungus. We sought to investigate the mechanisms by which O. unilateralis s.l. may be able to influence mandibular muscle contraction despite widespread muscle damage. We found that infected muscles show evidence of hypercontraction. Despite the extensive colonization, both motor neurons and neuromuscular junctions appear to be maintained. Infection results in sarcolemmal damage, but this is not specific to the death grip. We found evidence of precise penetration of muscles by fungal structures and the presence of extracellular vesicle-like particles, both of which may contribute to mandibular hypercontraction.

Keywords: Behavioral manipulation; Extracellular vesicles; Fungus; Host-pathogen interactions; Motor neuron; Ophiocordyceps.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants / microbiology*
  • Ants / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions*
  • Hypocreales / physiology*
  • Mandible
  • Muscles / microbiology
  • Muscles / physiology