Let’s learn about parasites that create zombies

Some parasites turn their victims into mindless puppets

a photo of two fungal bodies, with stalks and cauliflowered globes on the top, bursting out of a dead insect

Parasitic Ophiocordyceps fungi infect insects and bloom from their bodies to spew spores onto new victims.

Kevin Schafer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The animal kingdom is full of zombies. These poor creatures are not undead monsters out to eat brains. They are mindless puppets whose bodies have been taken over by parasites. Such parasites include viruses, worms, wasps and other organisms. And once one of these parasites has infected a host, it can force that host to do its bidding — even at the cost of the host’s life.

There are many of these creepy zombifying parasites, which can be found throughout the world. Here are three to start you off:

Ophiocordyceps: This is group, or genus, of fungi. When the spores of these fungi land on an insect, they burrow their way inside. They start growing and hijack their host’s mind. The fungus steers its victim to a place with the right temperature, humidity or other conditions needed for the fungus to grow. Stalks of the fungus then sprout out of the insect’s body to spew spores onto new victims.

Euhaplorchis californiensis: These worms make their home in a carpet-like layer atop the brains of California killifish. But they can only reproduce inside the guts of birds. So, the worms force fish to swim near the surface of the water. There, a fish is more likely to catch the eye of — and get eaten by — a bird. 

Jewel wasp: Females of this species inject mind-controlling venom into the brains of cockroaches. This allows a wasp to lead around a cockroach by its antenna like a dog on a leash. The wasp takes the cockroach back to the wasp’s nest, where it lays an egg on the cockroach. When the egg hatches, the baby wasp devours the roach for dinner.

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

Zombies are real! Some parasites worm their way into other creatures’ brains and alter their victims’ behavior. Meet zombie ants, spiders, cockroaches, fish and more. (10/27/2016) Readability: 7.1

Infected caterpillars become zombies that climb to their deaths By tampering with genes involved in vision, a virus can send caterpillars on a doomed quest for sunlight. (4/22/2022) Readability: 7.4

Here’s how cockroaches fight off zombie-makers Stand tall. Kick, kick and kick some more. Scientists observed these successful tactics among some study subjects that avoided becoming true zombies. (10/31/2018) Readability: 6.0


Nature is full of parasites that take over their victims’ minds and drive them toward self-destruction. #zombies #parasites #insects #science #learnitontiktok

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Parasites have evolved all sorts of sneaky ways to get around, get into hosts and evade detection. Build your own custom parasite, and see what kind of havoc a critter with those characteristics could wreak on its host.

Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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