Fungus that turns flies into zombies “enchants” healthy males to mate with fungus-infected female corpses to ensure their survival — and the longer the insect is dead, the more enticing it becomes, the study found
- The study found that 73 percent of the male flies were mated with female carcasses that had died from the fungal infection between 25 and 30 hours earlier
- Only 15 percent of males mated with female cadavers that had been dead for three hours
- The fungus releases a chemical signature that acts as pheromones to attract unsuspecting males
A fungus that turns houseflies into zombies ensures its survival by “hexing” males to mate with the fungus-infected corpses of dead females – and a new study shows the longer the female is dead, the more enticing it is for the male .
The fungus, formerly known as Entomophthora muscae, infects a female fly, slowly eats her alive from the inside out, and then in about a week the spores take over the behavior of the now-dead insect.
And once in full control, the fungus releases a chemical signature that acts as pheromones to attract unsuspecting males.
When the male mates with the infected female corpse, the fungal spores attach to the male, which in turn becomes a zombie housefly.
Scientists from the University of Copenhagen found that 73 percent of male flies mated with female carcasses that had died from the fungal infection between 25 and 30 hours earlier.
Only 15 percent of males mated with female cadavers that had been dead for three hours.
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A fungus that turns houseflies into zombies ensures its survival by enchanting males to mate with the fungus-infected corpses of dead females – and a new study shows that the longer the female is dead, the more attractive she is to the male
Henrik H. De Fine Licht, associate professor at the Institute of Environmental and Plant Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the study, said in a expression: “We see that the longer a female fly is dead, the more enticing she becomes to males.
“That’s because the number of fungal spores increases over time, which amplifies the alluring scents.”
The team believes this discovery could also lead to the development of a more effective fly repellent.
Licht adds: “Flies are quite unsanitary and can make people and animals sick by spreading E. coli and any diseases they carry.
Entomophthora muscae turns its victim into a zombie. Once infected, E. muscae causes flies to soar to a high point and spread their wings like a puppet on a string to spew spores from their swollen abdomen
So there is an incentive to limit housefly populations, for example in areas where food is produced.
The fungus that turns houseflies into zombies
Entomophthora muscae infects house flies and penetrates their skin.
It grows throughout the flies’ bodies, digesting their intestines and killing them in five to seven days.
The fungi can even hijack the insects’ brains, forcing them to land on a surface and crawl upwards to give the parasite a better chance to spread.
On the fly corpse, the fungus will grow a series of tiny spore cannons to infect other flies that come close.
“This is where the fungus Entomophthora muscae could come in handy. It might be possible for us to use the same mushroom scents as a biological pest control that lures healthy males to a flytrap instead of a corpse.”
Previous studies have already described the ruthless infection process of E. muscae. Its genus name, Entomophthora, translates to “insect destroyer” — and it’s no surprise why.
After infection, spores called conidia are produced by the fly — a process called sporulation.
E. muscae causes flies to soar to a high point and spread their wings like a puppet on a string, eventually spitting the spores out of their swollen abdomen.
The fungus invades the fruit fly’s nervous system, forcing it on a deadly ascent known as “summit disease” before engulfing the brain and muscles.
When the fly is dead, the fungus grows a series of micro-sized stalks on the corpse, each a pressurized liquid cannon with a spore that can be ejected outward.
Unlucky male flies are attracted to female “zombie” fly carcasses – and when they accidentally fire the cannons, they end up being coated in a spray of infectious spores.
This ensures that the fungal spores are spread as widely as possible, allowing the cruel process to take place again on another fly.
Overall, the E. muscae infection process itself does not differ between male and female houseflies.
Licht is one of the scientists who first discovered how the fungus turns flies into “zombie” necrophiles by releasing the chemical signature.