Infectious fungus turns beetles into zombie sex slaves

In the seemingly serene prairies of North America, there is a species of fungus that grabs the brains of beetles and turns them into zombie sex slaves.

The fungus strikes its hapless victims – the little goldenrod soldier beetle – where they mate, on the flowers of open fields and prairies in the United States and Canada.

Once infected, the 9 to 12 millimeter (0.35 to 0.5 inch) beetles clench their jaws firmly on a flower and die soon after.

But research has shown that this is only the beginning of the gruesome end for beetles, as the fungus turns females into zombie sex slaves in order to spread the infection.

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The fungus strikes its hapless victims – the little goldenrod soldier beetle (pictured) – where they mate, on flowers of fields and prairies in the United States and Canada. Once infected, beetles clamp their jaws firmly on a flower and die soon after

ZOMBIE SEXUAL SLAVE MUSHROOM

The zombie mushroom, known as Chauliognathus pensylvanicus, hides on the flowers where the goldenrod beetle mates.

Once infected, the fungus takes hold of the beetle’s mind and causes it to clamp its jaws on the flower.

A few hours after infection, still glued to the flower, the beetle’s wings open.

This position attracts mates – male beetles have been found mating with dead females.

This allows the fungus to spread to new victims.

Hours after the initial fungal invasion, with the dead beetle still glued to the flower, its wings open as if preparing to fly.

Stuck in this awkward position, some of the beetles attract mates – live males have been found mating with female zombies in the past.

“It would be like a person infected with a virus, who purposely searched for a singles bar, grabbed the bar with his teeth and died there, where healthy humans would be exposed to infectious viral particles,” the professor said. Donald Steinkraus, an entomologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said New scientist.

The researcher said that using the mating behaviors of the beetles is an effective way to attract healthy beetles to spread the infection.

In the study, Professor Steinkraus and his team examined 446 living and dead soldier beetles for signs of fungal infection.

One in five beetles were infected with the “zombie fungus” known as Chauliognathus pensylvanicus.

Most of these insects turned out to adopt the same odd posture, with their mandibles tightly wrapped around the flower and their paws soaring into the air.

  Hours after the initial fungal invasion, with the dead beetle still glued to the flower, its wings open as if preparing to fly.  Stuck in this awkward position, some of the beetles attract mates - live males have been found mating with female zombies in the past.

Hours after the initial fungal invasion, with the dead beetle still glued to the flower, its wings open as if preparing to fly. Stuck in this awkward position, some of the beetles attract mates – live males have been found mating with female zombies in the past.

But the team found that the wings of each beetle took 15 to 22 hours to open after the insect died.

“If you went to a mortuary where someone had been killed and about 24 hours after they died suddenly straightened up or raised their arms, that would be very scary,” Professor Steinkraus said.

“It happens in these beetles and is done by the fungus. “

The fungus becomes evident in the wing-opening phase after death, when its spores and filaments sprout from the beetle’s abdomen.

Steinkraus says it’s possible that the raised wings and a swollen abdomen caused by the fungal growth make the beetles appear larger, which can help attract a mate and spread the infection.

“Infected insects are known to adopt a number of unusual postures before and after death,” says Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. “A good test to do in the future would be to glue the wings closed, as well as remove them completely and test if this affects infectivity.”

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