A mind-controlling fungus that hijacks the free will of insects has been caught on camera, exploding out of its zombie-like victim.
The eye-catching photograph is the winner of this year’s image competition by BMC Ecology & Evolution, which is in its second year of showcasing the remarkable ways animals and plants interact in the natural world.
The prize-winning snap of the fly-infecting fungus is a freaky reminder that those natural relationships are not always friendly. Sometimes, they can result in one party sucking all the life out of the other.
The parasite responsible for infecting the fly in the image above belongs to a complex of Zombie fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) that is famous for commandeering the minds of ants.
When the spores of this parasite team up together inside a carpenter ant, the resulting fungus becomes a puppeteer that can force the insect to lock on to a leaf in whatever location it pleases.
Once settled, the parasite eats its host from the inside out. When the meal is done, the fungus’ fruiting body sends a probing arm out of the host’s head to sprinkle more anti-infecting spores into the environment.
And ants aren’t the only ones at risk of being zombified by fungi. The winner of the BMC image competition shows what happens when a Zombie fungus infects a fly.
The gruesome finale was captured by photographer Roberto García-Roa in Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve.
“The image depicts a conquest that has been shaped by thousands of years of evolution,” says García-Roa.
“The spores of the so-called ‘zombie’ fungus have infiltrated the exoskeleton and mind of the fly and compelled it to migrate to a location that is more favorable for the fungus’s growth. The fruiting bodies have then erupted from the fly’s body and will be jettisoned in order to infect more victims.”
Much of a Zombie fungus’ life takes place out of human sight, so when this elusive creature finally emerges from its host, it is hard for us to tear our eyes away.
One of the BMC board members, Christy Anna Hiplsey, describes García-Roa’s winning photograph as “something out of science fiction.”
“It illustrates both life and death simultaneously as the death of the fly gives life to the fungus,” she explains.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes… albeit a little less magical.
The winning images were published in BMC Ecology & Evolution.