Halloween Video: Nature’s Zombies

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 15, 2015 3
Dozens of strange parasites in nature were doing neurobiology long before humans ever picked up a medical textbook, in effect turning unsuspecting creatures into “zombies.” ©From the video “Attack of the Zombie Parasites!,” PBS Digital Studios

Long before humans ever picked up a medical textbook, dozens of creatures were practicing neurobiology. ©From the video “Attack of the Zombie Parasites!,” PBS Digital Studios

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.

No will to run: an emerald jewel wasp turns a cockroach into a zombie midwife. ©From the video “Attack of the Zombie Parasites!,” PBS Digital Studios

No will to run: an emerald jewel wasp injects a cockroach’s brain with chemicals that block the roach’s instinct to run away. The wasp then drags the roach home and lays its eggs within the “zombie” it created. ©From the video “Attack of the Zombie Parasites!,” PBS Digital Studios

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.

Toxoplasma gondii uses mind-control on mice to work its way into cat intestines, where the protozoa can reproduce. ©From the video “Attack of the Zombie Parasites!,” PBS Digital Studios

“Toxoplasma gondii” uses mind-control on mice to work its way into cat intestines, where the protozoa can reproduce. ©From the video “Attack of the Zombie Parasites!,” PBS Digital Studios

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.

Happy Halloween,

Candy

3 Comments »

  1. Eric Johnson October 19, 2015 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    Love zombies! Happy Halloween back to you =)

  2. Ashley Shultz October 19, 2015 at 3:32 pm - Reply

    Maybe I should stop feeding the stray cat outside to avoid toxoplasma gondii bondage. :-O

  3. Venkatasamy Ramakrishna October 19, 2015 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    Most interesting Candice. I find myself better informed. Thanks.

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