LAFAYETTE — University of Louisiana at Lafayette senior Stephen Saltamachia’s discovery this year of an ant infected with a rare “zombie fungus” has mycologists — fungi experts — about as excited as they get, and even a national magazine has taken notice.
Saltamachia, a microbiology major, was at work over the summer at the Acadiana Park Nature Station in northeast Lafayette when he spotted a carpenter ant queen behaving weirdly. She was both outside her nest and walking around in broad daylight, something that rarely happens in nature.
“A born naturalist, Saltamachia suspected that the ant might be parasitized by a brain-manipulating pathogen often called ‘zombie fungus,’ which causes infected insects to behave abnormally,” reads a Newsweek online article published Monday.
Saltamachia, a 27-year-old senior who has worked at the Nature Station for 10 years, bottled the still-alive ant queen and later put her dead body in a petri dish.
“The dead insect gave rise to a vigorous, furry fungus that sprouted from its dead body like moldering cotton candy,” Newsweek’s Douglas Main wrote.
Saltamachia’s discovery was really the rediscovery of a fungus — Desmidiospora myrmecophila — that had not been mentioned prominently in scholarly journals in almost 100 years.
Though Saltamachia recognized the thick, uniquely shaped structure created by the fungus was something rare, he didn’t know experts in the field who could verify his finding for a research paper he is writing.
So he reached out to researchers worldwide.
“Any mycologists in the house?” Saltamachia asked on the Internet social site for scientists, ResearchGate.
According to an article in the Penn State News, an academic publication, the so-called zombie fungus “emits a cocktail of behavior-controlling chemicals when encountering the brain” of an ant.
The ant, under chemical mind control, climbs to the highest point it can before it dies. From that perch, wind-borne spores can infect more ants and other insects.
Saltamachia on Wednesday chuckled when asked what would seem to be the obvious question: No, he said, zombie ants and the fungus that takes over their tiny minds pose no threat to humans. Of this, he has proof, since he accidentally stuck himself with the zombie spore while trying to infect another queen ant with the fungus.
“People were keeping an eye on me,” he said.
Saltamachia’s short-term goal is to write a research paper on what he’s discovered, and the benefits that could come from it.
“What I’m really interested in is why is this important,” Saltamachia said, noting the fungus has “anti-malarial, anti-tumor properties and antibiotic compounds” that could be a building block that could lead to breakthrough medicines.
He also believes it could be of commercial value to the pest control industry because the fungus “is specific to the queen ant. That’s the pest control of ultimate proportions.”