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Invasion of the Zombie Ants

Inside the Classroom: This series takes you inside Vassar's classes to reveal what students are studying today.

It sounds like the plot from a bad science fiction movie, but it happens every day. Ants’ brains are taken over by an alien force, causing them to march through the forest to their deaths.

A fungus called Ophiocordyceps, found in the Brazilian rainforest, attaches itself to the ant’s head and sends a message to its brain, telling it to walk to a specific poisonous plant. The ant climbs up the plant, bites the leaf and dies. Its body falls near other ants, and they also become infected.

This cycle is bad for the ants but good for the fungus, which is able to regenerate itself by finding more insects to infect.

For the first time this fall, Assistant Professor of Biology David Esteban and Professor of Neuroscience Kevin Holloway are collaborating to explore such bizarre behavior in nature in a course they have dubbed “Mad Dogs, Vampires, and Zombie Ants: Behavior Mediating Infections.”

“I explain what happens when the brain is attacked,” Holloway says. “David explains what the (attackers) are and how they work.”

The story of the zombie ants is one of several examples of behavior-modifying parasites Esteban and Holloway use in the course.  Students are learning about the properties of the rabies virus, which cause infected animals to attack other animals. This ensures the virus will be passed on through the saliva of the attacking creature.

Esteban says the course reinforces one of the basic truths about nature: “Living things find ways of propagating themselves.”

The students have been divided into groups and have been asked to research specific topics related to the theme of the course; later, the groups will make presentations to the class. The entire class will then be assigned readings on the topics.

Esteban and Holloway says the goal for the course is to teach young scientists how to conduct research and communicate what they’ve learned to others, something they’ll be doing as scientists throughout their careers.

Not all of the source material is taken from dry scientific journals. Holloway and Esteban will show the Stephen Soderbergh-Matt Damon film, Contagion, to demonstrate how both disease and fear can be transmitted quickly through the population.

“The movie is marketed for a general audience, but there was a genuine attempt to make it scientifically accurate,” Holloway says.

Before presenting the unit on zombie ants, they’ll show the 2004 horror-spoof, Shaun of the Dead.

“For that one,” Holloway says, “our tongues will be firmly in our cheeks.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos courtesy of David Hughes, Penn State University