These Spooky Parasites Turn Their Insect Prey Into Full-On ‘Zombies’

by Craig Garrett
(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

There are a multitude of spooky parasites that transform their insect victims into something akin to zombies. A recent round-up of these creepy crawlies from a Fox Weather article will make your skin crawl.

Hairworms are parasitic animals from the phylum Nematomorpha. These creatures infect crickets and other terrestrial insects, controlling their bodies. The first stage of this begins in water, where hairworm eggs are laid and later mature into larvae. The microscopic larvae have hooks, as well as long, slender probes called stylets – both of which help them to infect insects more easily.

The larvae take control of the insect once it’s inside, and make it travel toward a body of water until the insect drowns. This aids the hairworm in returning to an aquatic environment where it can reproduce most effectively.

Our next spooky parasite slimes more than a specter out of Ghostbusters

The Lancet liver fluke is a parasitic flatworm that enlists ants to assist in its reproduction process. However, the journey from food source to ant host involves a few steps. The Lancet fluke’s lifecycle begins when the parasite grows and lays its eggs inside the liver of a grazing animal. The host grazer then excretes the fluke and its eggs through feces. Snails eat these droppings, becoming infected with larvae in the process. The parasites pass through the snail’s digestive system before being expelled as slime balls.

The ants then feed on the slime balls filled with parasites. Once they consume them, one of the parasites enters their brain and releases chemicals that allow it to control the insect’s body. Talk about getting slimed.

However, the spooky parasite’s control differs based on the time of day. For example, during a cool evening, the parasite may force the ant to climb to the top of a blade of grass where it might be eaten by another animal and restart its life cycle.

Alternatively, if the ant isn’t consumed, it will crawl back down to the ground level when night becomes day and proceed with its usual activities. But as soon as evening arrives again, the parasite takes control once more and drives the ant back up to be eaten.

One last creepy crawly to haunt your nightmares

Our final suspect sounds like it came right out of an HP Lovecraft story. Fungi from the genus Ophiocordyceps infect ants to control them by releasing spores that land on an ant. The spores then use mechanical pressure and enzymes to drill through the insect’s exoskeleton. Once inside, the fungus grows as free-living yeast cells.

Once the yeast cells have infected an ant, they produce nerve toxins that change the creature’s behavior. The fungus then forces the ant to climb to a specific location on a plant where death shortly follows.

Costa Rica is home to many bullet ants, which are known for their ability to climb plants. When a parasitic fungus infects one of these ants, it forces the ant to climb to the top of a plant. Once at the top, the fungus erupts out of the back of the ant’s skull and releases its fungal spores onto other ants below, painting them white like snowflakes.