The Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences

Zombie-ant fungus is under attack by hyperparasites

An international research team led by Penn State professor and Huck Institutes researcher David Hughes has discovered that hyperparasitic fungi — which are not pathogens of ants — infect the zombie-ant fungi and significantly limit the viability of their spore-producing organs, thus reducing the danger posed to the colony.
Ant corpse with mature, healthy fungal fruiting body growing from its neck. Credit: David Hughes.

Ant corpse with mature, healthy fungal fruiting body growing from its neck. Credit: David Hughes.

By: Seth Palmer


Dr. Hughes and his team observed that the pressure exerted on the ant colonies by the parasitic fungi (Ophiocordyceps spp., includingO. unilateralis s.l.) was much lower than the abundance of ant corpses would suggest.


They subsequently discovered the hyperparasitization, which results in a mere 6.5 percent viability of the spore-producing organs of the infected Ophiocordyceps.


Those Ophiocordyceps fruiting bodies which matured, however, appeared to be fertile and robust.


The researchers suggest that in order to survive despite being hyperparasitized, the Ophiocordyceps fungi have developed slowly maturing fruiting bodies and employ a reproductive strategy known as iteroparity — rarely considered in fungi but which, given evidence of correlative morphological characteristics in other hypocrealean fungi, may occur more widely than was previously thought.


More about Dr. Hughes

David Hughes is an assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State, and a faculty member of the Huck Institutes' graduate program in ecology, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, and Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition.


Publication details

  • Andersen SB
  • Ferrari M
  • Evans HC
  • Elliot SL
  • Boomsma JJ
  • Hughes DP
Disease Dynamics in a Specialized Parasite of Ant Societies
PLoS One 7(5): e36352