At this time of year, the minds of Hollywood TV and film producers aren’t the only ones full of thoughts of zombies, those rather stiff and stumbling, hungry and insatiable beings who want to eat the rest of us. Some creatures found in nature, too, have had their brains transformed, turning them into real-life zombies.
In the video below, produced by PBS Digital Studios and hosted by Joe Hanson, Ph.D., you’ll be introduced to some of the natural world’s strangest parasites that are able to turn others into half-dead, mind-controlled puppets. For example, an emerald jewel wasp (Ampulex compressa) can turn cockroaches into zombie midwives. A rust fungus can manipulate wild mustard (Arabis holboellii) into producing fake flowers and fake nectar that is 10 to 100 times sweeter than the nectar of real flowers. This draws bees, tricking them into landing and then transferring the fungus’s spores to new plants that they can colonize. In fact, as Dr. Hanson states in the video, nature’s parasites were doing neurobiology long before humans ever picked up a medical textbook.
A protozoan can even create zombie rodents in order to get inside our household cats. If the single-cell Toxoplasma gondii finds its way into the brain of a mouse, the rodent suddenly wants to make friends with felines—as if it’s under the spell of some parasitic love potion—following the smell of cat urine to its ultimate demise. Since Toxo can only sexually reproduce inside the intestines of a cat, it has controlled its mouse host well. The Toxo undergoes sexual reproduction inside the cat, gets dropped off in a litter box where it is capable of infecting virtually all warm-blooded animals and the cycle begins again.
So, could the human zombies we see in movies actually exist? Watch the video to find out.