Fungible Insects

unidentified fly parasitized by fungus

Parasitic fungi present fatal dangers to spiders and Insects, like this deceased, unidentified fly.

If not always but often, at the crux of what lives and what dies, there is an insect. Crops fade in the face of a swarm. A native tree species is ravaged by an invading beetle. A flower relies on a specific moth’s continuing patrongage. A human falls to malaria passed on from the whiny mosquito. And among themselves insects have miniature epics, wars and tragedies and triumphs, of all kinds. Perhaps less thought of in the insect theater of life and death, are the diseases and non-arthropod parasites they receive as opposed to the ones they give. We think of Lyme disease or bed bugs because they are harmful to people, but make no mistakes bugs get it on the other end.

In the case of this post, the bug is “getting” a parasitic fungus that ultimately had killed it. The above image, or similar cases, are probably horrifying to some people, and I have to say, they can be quite grizzly. But not always. I have not personally come across any in the field, but from photos some fungus-ridden insects appear quite mesmerizing, even beautiful, like impossible sculptures.

These fungi are still a bit insidious, the aesthetics and ontology of the circle of life notwithstanding, especially in case of behavior-altering types like the Cordyceps parasitoid, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which turns ants into “zombies.” Essentially, the attacking fungus causes the ant to fall down from the canopy (its typical habitat) and to bite down on a leaf in a place with environmental conditions more suitable for its reproduction before the fruiting bodies grow out of the ant’s head. If that isn’t horror movie fodder, I’m not sure what is.

“Zombie ants” and their fungus were in the news a while back and something of “the rage.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they inspired this short (and bizarre) internet advertisement featuring a stag beetle-ish animation. (I might have shared this one before; I find it captivating and refreshing…in a very weird way.) Anyway, it’s quite fascinating if you can get past the gory details. I don’t know how many other behavior-altering species of fungus are out there, but I have not heard of any up here in New England. In the meanwhile, I’m sure we have plenty of boring, old parasitoid fungi trading in the currency of insect life; once in a while they inspire a photo, too.

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