Monster Science Part 4 - Giant Ants and Zombie Ants!

Peter Kublik
23 January 2012

Ants have a proud history of terrifying movie goers, most notably in the 1954 black and white film, Them! It was a trailblazer in the “big bug” genre of horror movies and one of the first movies to feature animals mutated by radiation. In a continuation of the series looking at the science of monsters (see werewolves, vampires, and zombies) we will see that giant ants are rooted firmly in science and ants face some true horrors of their own.

Did You Know?
If rising water levels threaten a fire ant colony they will form a massive, living raft of ants. Check it out.

Science has yet to give us an ant the size of a Honda Civic that we can ride on, but a recent discovery from a Wyoming fossil site is sure to make any myrmecophobes (those who are afraid of ants) squeamish. Bruce Archibald, a paleoentomologist from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia discovered the fossilized remains of an ant, five centimetres (two inches) long, sitting in a drawer in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. These ants would have been roughly the size of hummingbirds! Large fossilized ants have previously been found in Germany, but finding them on the opposite side of the Atlantic has opened up a whole series of interesting questions about prehistoric earth.

Did You Know?
Army ants are blind and are therefore extremely dependent on pheromone trails left by other ants for guidance. If they start following each other in a circle, they sometimes end up in what is known as a “death spiral.”

On rare occasions, real life can be stranger than fiction. There is a family of fungus more graphic and horrifying than anything you’ve ever heard of. That is, if you’re an ant. It starts when an ant, going about its business, picks up a fungal spore. The spore starts to spread its mycelia (which look like plant roots and are how a fungus absorbs nutrients) into the ant’s brain turning it into a “zombie.” This ant then staggers drunkenly out of the colony to find a leaf at a very specific height and humidity, just right for a fungus to grow. It latches on to a sturdy vein on the underside of the leaf. At this point the stalk of the fungus bursts out of the ant’s head and releases spores all over the ground, hoping to cross the path of other ants. Thankfully, these truly gruesome parasites are restricted to the insect kingdom.

Lucky for us, modern ants bear little resemblance to the nightmarish monstrosities found on drive-in movie screens and in the prehistoric world. They do face real fungal terrors, however, that would make the best horror writer’s skin crawl. Ants are a fascinating species that never fail to shock and entertain.

Learn more!

CBC's Quirks and Quarks - Zombie Ants

'Monstrously Big Ant' Fossil Found in Wyoming

Article first published May 18, 2011

Peter Kublik

Peter is a freelance science writer from Calgary, Alberta. He has been granted several exciting opportunities to share his passion for science outreach and education in the media, most recently during a four month media fellowship with CBC Radio's Calgary morning show, the Eyeopener. Outside of the lab he is an amateur photographer, an avid outdoorsman, and an enthusiastic technophile.

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