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5 Real-Life Zombies

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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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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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