Yes, zombie ants are real. Ants turn into zombies when infected by a parasitic fungus called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. This zombie-ant fungus takes control of their bodies and uses them to infect more victims.
In this article, we’ll further discuss what zombie ants are and how they occur.
We’ll also answer more pressing questions including:
- What other animals turn into zombies?
- Can the zombie ant fungus infect humans?
What are Zombie Ants?
Zombie ants are ants infected by the parasitic fungus O. unilateralis (Cordyceps). These ants are specifically targeted. They occur only in the carpenter ant Camponotus leonardi and other closely-related species. 
When infected, these ants begin acting strangely. They start by leaving their nests for a more humid area which fosters the parasite’s growth.
Moving erratically along the way, they then climb to an elevated position. There they clamp down and lock themselves into leaves or twigs until they die. This final bite is commonly referred to as the death grip.
After death, the infection culminates as fruiting bodies sprout from their heads. These bodies release spores to turn more and more ants into zombies. It’s common for the fungus to wipe out entire ant colonies.
How Do Zombie Ants Occur?
The infection starts when spores penetrate the exoskeleton and enters the bloodstream. There the fungus reproduces and makes copies of itself.
These copies work together and share nutrients. They invade the different parts of the ant’s body and colonize it from the abdomen to the head.
Interestingly though, the fungus does not touch the ant’s brain. Instead, they form networks that encircle and penetrate the ant’s muscles. 
This is a major deviation from how zombies are portrayed in pop culture.
This suggests that they don’t control the brain directly. Instead, the infection cuts the connection between the limbs and the brain. The fungus controls the ant through the muscles.
Scientists also believe that the fungus makes use of bioactive compounds. These compounds affect the nervous system and influence the brain from afar.
With all that said, scientists have yet to pinpoint the fungus’ actual means of control. What we just know for now is that they can assume control and lead ants to their death. That itself is a scary thing to think of.
How Ants Combat Infection
A 48 million-year-old fossil leaf shows that ants have been affected by fungus for a long time. Through that time, they have developed adaptations to prevent themselves from becoming zombies. 
One such adaptation is allogrooming. Allogrooming is when ants remove infectious particles from the bodies of their nestmates.
When it comes to fungi, they physically remove spores and make use of chemicals to disinfect. They secrete and apply a poison that inhibits fungal growth. 
In some ant species, sick ants withdraw from their colonies to prevent the spread of disease. Hours before death, these ants cease contact and leave their nests. It is possible that this behavioral adaptation plays a role in a zombie ant’s final ascent.
What Other Animals Turn into Zombies?
Fungal manipulation isn’t exclusive to ants. There are many different species of Cordyceps that target other insects and arthropods. These include wasps, flies, and spiders.
There are also other parasites apart from fungi that can take control of their hosts.
Hairworms, for example, are freshwater invertebrates that infect grasshoppers. They consume the grasshoppers from within and eventually force them into suicide. They manipulate grasshoppers to jump into water where they can complete their lifecycle.
There’s also another parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. This protozoan parasite infects mammals including mice, livestock, and humans. It infects the brain and is believed to affect behavior.
Infected mice, for example, seem to lose their fear of cats.
Research has also linked the parasite to destructive behavior in humans. While unproven, research has shown a correlation between infection and self-directed violence. 
Can the Zombie-Ant Fungus Infect Humans?
Rest easy, as they, fortunately, can’t. There are no known species of Cordyceps that affect humans in the same way that it affects ants.
It’s also unlikely for them to evolve and infect humans. These types of fungi have evolved to target specific species of animals. If they are to ever infect humans, they would need millions of years of evolution.
That said, who’s to say evolution won’t throw us a curveball? While unlikely, it’s certainly not impossible.
Summary: Are Zombie Ants Real?
To summarize, zombie ants are indeed real. These ants are infected by Cordyceps fungus which takes control of their bodies.
When infected, they act under the will of the parasite which seeks only to propagate and disperse. They’re taken away from their nests and to an ideal area where they can spread fungal spores. That way, the fungus can infect more victims and continue to grow.
It’s quite scary thinking how close that sounds to pop culture’s depiction of a zombie apocalypse. Thankfully they don’t affect us. I don’t think I’m ready for a world with clickers from the Last of Us.