Zombie ant death grip due to hypercontracted mandibular muscles

Colleen A. Mangold, Melissa J. Ishler, Raquel G. Loreto, Missy L. Hazen, David P. Hughes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


There are numerous examples of parasites that manipulate the behavior of the hosts that they infect. One such host–pathogen relationship occurs between the ‘zombie-ant fungus’ Ophiocordyceps unilateralis sensu lato and its carpenter ant host. Infected ants climb to elevated locations and bite onto vegetation where they remain permanently affixed well after death. The mandibular muscles, but not the brain, of infected ants are extensively colonized by the fungus. We sought to investigate the mechanisms by which O. unilateralis s.l. may be able to influence mandibular muscle contraction despite widespread muscle damage. We found that infected muscles show evidence of hypercontraction. Despite the extensive colonization, both motor neurons and neuromuscular junctions appear to be maintained. Infection results in sarcolemmal damage, but this is not specific to the death grip. We found evidence of precise penetration of muscles by fungal structures and the presence of extracellular vesicle-like particles, both of which may contribute to mandibular hypercontraction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberjeb200683
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number14
StatePublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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