On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, Blue Ridge mycologists found hundreds of zombie ant mushrooms at The Quarry Gardens. Society leader Pat Mitchell (red beard at right) documented the first one in Virginia on iNaturalist back in August. Later, learning that Amelio Little (far left front), had been finding numbers of them around Charlottesville, Pat invited Amelio to demonstrate his technique to the group.
Ophiocordiceps is a parasitic fungus that grows in the body of a host insect. (Cordiceps militaris, which grows in the body of a ground beetle and raises a tiny orange club from its head, has been noted here since 2015.)
According to Pat, this Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae enters the ant’s body—these were red carpenter ants (Camponatus casteneus)—and completely takes over its nervous system, replacing it with mycelium. It then drives the ant like a robot to a location above the forest floor with the perfect level of humidity and moisture for fruiting. It then causes the ant to bite down on a branch, locks its jaw and, and kills it. Once the host dies, the fungus, now anchored to the plant, produces the spore-bearing fruiting spike that lets it reproduce. The sack-like feature on the spike is the actual spore-bearing surface.
Here at the QGs, the ant mushrooms were found clamped to the bottoms of beech twigs. Pat opines that zombie ant mushrooms are probably everywhere; one only needs to know how to see them. Ants have evolved to sense the threat and remove infected members of the colony and dispose of them far from the nest.
Ophiocordyceps kimflemingiae was only first identified in 2018.
You can learn more here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166061617300593
Photo by Amelio Little
Such science non-fiction is the stuff of the Blue Ridge Mycological Society’s monthly meetings at the QGs. Follow them on Facebook.
Throughout the year, guest experts lead walks at the Quarry Gardens that invite participants to learn more about wildflowers, butterflies, birds, spiders, moths, caterpillars, and such—all while enjoying the beauty of the setting. To receive timely notice of such events, follow Quarry Gardens at Schuyler on Facebook.