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Wikimedia Commons

5 Real-Life Zombies

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the dead to rise from their graves, there are still plenty of zombies roaming the Earth. Some of them are in the waters where we swim (not unlike this guy), and many more of them are right underneath our feet.

To get a leg (or six) up in a world that’s red in tooth and claw, some animals have struck upon a peculiar strategy: bending other critters to their will like VooDoo zombie masters and using them as homes, hosts, food or labor. Here are just a few of nature’s zombies and the parasite masters that control them. They’re coming to get you Barbara…

1. Fungus Among Us

When a spore of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis meets an ant, things get very weird and very bad for the ant very quickly. The spore germinates and enters the ant’s body through holes in its exoskeleton. The fungus then starts to grow inside the ant’s body, absorbing soft tissue while leaving vital organs intact, for the ant must remain alive and fully functional for a while longer to be of real use to the fungus.

When O. unilateralis reaches the autumn of its short life and is ready to sporulate and make way for a new generation, its long, branching filaments grow into the ant’s brain. The fungus produces chemicals that poison the ant’s brain and cause it to become transportation to the fungus’ birthing ground—and its own hearse. The ant, no longer in control of its own body, leaves its colony, climbs a plant, and clamps its mandibles around a leaf at the top, fastening it to its grave. There, new life springs into the world, right out of the ant’s head. Now out in the open, the fruiting bodies of the fungus mature and burst, releasing clusters of spore capsules into the air. As they descend, these capsules explode, spreading spores like confetti over the ground. The spores  infect other ants, continuing the fungus’ bizarre life cycle. The whole ordeal, from one infection to the next, can take as little as two weeks.

2. What a Web It Weaves

Thwack

Normally, the web of an orb weaver spider is where bugs meet their untimely death and become spider snacks. Using an arsenal of toxins and mind-altering chemicals, though, the parasitic wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga turns the spider into a slave and a meal, and its web into a safe haven. The female wasp paralyzes the spider with a sting and then lays her egg on its abdomen. When the egg hatches, the larva lives on the spider and sucks hemolymph (kind of the arthropod version of blood) from its body for nourishment.

A few weeks later, the larva is ready to move on to the next stage of its life cycle, and injects the spider with a chemical (as yet unidentified) that alters its behavior. The next time the zombie spider builds a web, it repeats the first few steps over and over again instead of going through all the regular steps, resulting in a web that’s just a few heavily-reinforced anchor threads and a small center section. Then the spider crawls to the center of the web and sits there complacently. The larva molts, kills the only companion it has ever known, sucks any remaining useful bits out from its corpse, and discards it. Then it builds its cocoon on a web custom-built for the job. A few weeks later, the adult wasp emerges and flies away, and the cycle starts over.

3. Roach Motel

Like H. Argyaphaga, the Emerald Cockroach (or Jewel) Wasp is free-living as an adult, but starts life inside a host. As their name suggests, these wasps use cockroaches as living nurseries for their little bundles of joy. When a female wasp is ready to lay her eggs, she swoops in, lands on a roach’s back and plunges her stinger into its midsection. The roach’s legs buckle and it tumbles to the ground, unable to flee or fight back for a short while. This buys the wasp time to play brain surgeon. She slides her stinger through the roach’s head and into its brain, slowly probing until she hits just the right spot. The venom she releases this time doesn’t paralyze the roach; it can move its legs again, but not of its own accord. When the momma wasp grasps its antennae and starts moving, it follows her like an obedient puppy. She leads the roach to her burrow, where she lays her egg on its abdomen and then leaves. All the roach can do is sit and wait. Soon the egg hatches and the larva emerges. It chews into the roach’s abdomen and wriggles inside, where it lives for a week, devouring the roach’s organs the whole while. It forms a pupa and emerges as a full-grown adult a few weeks later, bursting forth from the roach and leaving it buried in the burrow.

4. The Bodyguard

Last wasp, we promise (there are just so many!). The females of the genus Glyptapanteles lay scores of eggs inside caterpillars, and the larva squirm out a short time later to spin their cocoons. It seems like the caterpillar gets off a little easier than those poor roaches and spiders, but its work isn’t done yet. A few of the larva actually stay behind inside the caterpillar and give up their chance to pupate and mature, for the good of their siblings. They take control of their host’s body, and force it to stand guard over the cocoons. The caterpillar waits motionless, unless a potential predator comes too close to the pupae, in which case it thrashes violently at the visitor to drive it away. By the time the adult wasps emerge, the caterpillar, which hasn’t eaten during its guard duty, dies from starvation.

5. Watery Grave

The parasitic hairworm grows up on land—specifically, inside a grasshopper or a cricket—but is aquatic as an adult. To make the transition to water, it forces its host to take it for a swim. The worm pumps the insect full of proteins (which may mimic ones that the host produces on its own) that sabotage its central nervous system and compels it to leap into the nearest body of water. The host drowns and the adult worm, three to four times longer than the corpse it once called home, wriggles out and swims away in search of a mate. The babies they make will infest the water until they're guzzled down by a host they can call their own.

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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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