Farmers fighting invasions of fire ants have a new weapon in their arsenal. It's a natural, non-toxic way to kill the ants by turning them into zombies whose heads pop off.
For the past several years, people in farming communities in Florida have been using this weapon, and now a group in Texas is also taking it up. They're releasing phorid flies from South America, tiny little humpbacked creatures whose lifecycle involves creating fire ant zombies. The flies dive-bomb fire ants, injecting their eggs into the insects' bodies.
When the larvae hatch, they worm their way into the ants' heads, slowly eating their brains. Once the brain is sufficiently eradicated, the ant starts engaging in extremely strange behavior. It wanders in random directions, and finally the larvae eat enough that the ant's head simply falls off.
The phorid fly continues to gestate inside the zombie head, eventually emerging from the ant's mouth as a fully-grown fly, ready to attack another fire ant. Agricultural experts think this is an effective and environmentally safe way to kill the ants, whose chompy habits destroy millions of dollars in electrical equipment and menace young cows.
Not only do the flies kill many ants, but they change the behavior of the survivors. Afraid of being attacked by the flies, the ants will forage closer to the nest, gathering half the amount of food they normally would. Less food means the hives shrink, bringing the fire ant population under control.
No word on what those zombie-making phorids will do when their ant victims die out. Human heads are tasty, or so I've heard.
via AP News
images via University of Florida