How Does the Zombie Fungus Work? Yes. It’s Real.

(Last Updated On: January 31, 2023)

If you play video games, this was a question you probably asked in 2013, when The Last of Us originally came out on the PlayStation 3 (that was a decade ago, feel old yet?). Random fun fact, The Last of Us has been re-released no less than three separate times in the last 10 years. That’s a lot, but considering how the game (and its 2014 re-release) sold 17 million copies between 2013 and 2018, you can understand why Sony would push for that. Anyway, if you don’t play video games, you’re probably asking about the zombie fungus now in 2023, because The Last of Us (2023) has now hit your small screen and is doing quite well for HBO. For those who know what happened when The Last of Us Part II (2020) was written, have fun navigating that internet discourse. The actors should just throw away their phones when season 2 starts for their own sake. So for those catching up on this not-new-but-sort-of-new-again take on zombies, how does the zombie fungus work?

Further Reading: Where Did We Get Zombies from?

The Zombie Fungus Is Real and It Hates Bugs

Cordyceps is normally talked about in the context of ants; specifically when people refer to “Cordyceps” they’re probably talking about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. It’s commonly known as the “zombie ant fungus.” 

If you’re familiar with your taxonomy, you’ll recognize that Cordyceps is actually a genus, and not a specific species. That means there are a lot of different Cordyceps fungi out there that affect a lot of different species. They really just go for different insects and arthropods though, and there are over 400 different Cordyceps species out there. Most are native to Asia; Cordyceps thrives in tropical, humid areas. 

How Does Cordyceps Actually Work?

The mechanism by which Cordyceps propagates and kills its hosts is pretty similar between species, so let’s just stick to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. You’ll have noticed by now that Ophiocordyceps unilateralis has a different genus from Cordyceps. This confusion is pretty recent; before 2007 the genus Ophiocordyceps didn’t exist. The reason for this distinction is due to a new understanding of the molecular structure of fungi. Ophiocordyceps is more distinct in the single, darker colored stalk that comes out of the back of a parasitized ant’s head. 

Okay, so what happens to a poor ant that finds itself on the wrong end of  an Ophiocordyceps spore? Well it begins when our unfortunate ant walks under a leaf, and a spore falls onto them. The spores are almost drill-like, punching through the exoskeleton of our soon-to-be-a-zombie ant. 

Conventional wisdom once held that the zombie fungus would just hijack the brain of our unfortunate host. Except… The reality is far more brutal. The zombie fungus actually just bypasses the brain entirely. Our zombie making mushroom first forms a network throughout the insect’s muscles, and then essentially hijacks those. Ophiocordyceps then cuts off the brain from the rest of the body, meaning the ant is actually just a passenger watching the fungus marionette its body around. 

Before dying, the ant is directed to the underside of a leaf, where it will be affixed to. The zombie fungus then erupts from the back of the ant’s head, dispersing spores onto the ground below—which typically in the path of an ant colony. 

Despite how easily Ophiocordyceps can devastate an ant colony, only 6-7% of spores are viable. Perhaps ironically, this is because of another fungus that parasitizes Ophiocordyceps. This is known as hyperparasitism.  

Can You Be a Fungus Zombie?

The short answer is no. Human and insect physiology—remember that all variations of Cordyceps currently only affect insects and arthropods—are very different, and it took millions of years of evolution for Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps variants to become so good at infecting their hosts. Cordyceps fungi, while they can manipulate closely related species to those they target, do so with far less efficacy. There’s no evidence that Cordyceps can manipulate human or even mammals, so it would take a long, long time before any variant of the zombie fungus got anywhere near humans. 

Brain-manipulating parasites do affect us though. There’s one that actually straight up makes us cat people

That’s not to say fungi aren’t ever a concern, of course. The WHO has a list of dangerous fungi, but if it makes you feel better, Cordyceps” doesn’t appear in the report

See if you know your other fungi here. Might not make you a very fun guy at parties. 

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.



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