Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Parasite makes ant mimic fruit

Parasites frequently modify the behavior of their hosts to encourage the infection of new hosts. For example, see this video (taken from the Planet Earth documentary) of the fungus Cordyceps that makes insects climb to the top of grass stems, and then erupts its fruiting body from the host's body, and disperses its spores over more hapless hosts from this elevated position. Yanoviak et al. (Am Nat 2008. Vol. 171, pp. 536–544; DOI: 10.1086/528968) describe a case of parasite-induced mimicry in the ant Cephalotes atratus. A nematode infection causes the gasters (rear portion of the abdomen) to become bright red and swollen, resembling a berry fruit, where normally it is black and inconspicuous. The infected gasters are also full of parasite eggs. Birds that feed on berries would then pop off these packets of parasite propagules, and pass out the eggs in their faeces. Ants congregate around bird faeces, which represent food resources to them, and collect them to feed to their brood, completing the cycle.

Here's the lesson from all this, kids: don't eat dung.

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