Zombie Ant Fungus

Mankind is pretty smug, we see ourselves as jewels in the evolutionary crown – top of the food chain, dominant species, masters of our domain, Terms like “natural order” or “balance of nature” play second fiddle to foolish notions of superiority.  Language and opposable thumbs gave birth to civilization,  evolution dealt us a good hand. We tend to forget nature dealt every species a great hand.

Consider a spore producing organism – no brain, nervous system or ability to move other than mature spores catching a breeze or falling to the ground – you’re pondering Fungus. Now imagine spores that only attach themselves to carpenter ants – spores able to kill hosts just outside their home, use the corpse to mature, grow new spores, and toss them to the ground. Spores guaranteed to infect oblivious ants entering the nest – now you’re pondering Zombie Ant Fungus.

Assistant professor David Hughes of the Entomology Dept. at Penn State c0-authored a paper on Zombie Ant Fungus.

“Ants are remarkably adept at cleaning the interior of the nest to prevent diseases. But we also found that this fungal parasite can’t grow to the stage suitable for transmission inside the nest whether ants are present or not.”

“What the zombie fungi essentially do is create a sniper’s alley through which their future hosts must pass. The parasite doesn’t need to evolve mechanisms to overcome the effective social immunity that occurs inside the nest. At the same time, it ensures a constant supply of susceptible hosts.” – David Hughes

Nature runs a tight ship, evolution knows when to act and react. Zombie fungus isn’t a freakish accident. Dealt the hand needed to maintain balance – a hand no different than the one we got – everything happens for a reason. there’s a reason for everything. If nature decides mankind needs a zombie fungus  – use your opposable thumb to tweet #Zombiespores.



Why Butterfly?

Just a few hours drive from Mexico City, in the central highlands of Mexico – October ends with one of natures greatest ponders. Why would a butterfly travel thousands of miles from Canada and the north eastern U.S., to arrive by the millions at a tiny destination. An area no bigger than 60 square miles – an event so predictable it never swings by more than a week, a phenomenon defying explanation.

Unlike Salmon who return to spawn in the river they were born – Monarch Butterflies exist within a three to five year cycle. Those born in Mexico pack their bags and head north at winter’s end – they live a month, making it about as far as Texas. The next generation get busy and have a month to reach the northern states and Canada before they expire.  Third generation Monarchs do their butterfly thing with one major variance – one late August day they simply take flight and head south.

Acutely tuned to weather forecasts and direction – they know when to hunker down and ride out storms, and they know precisely where the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is in Michoacan Mexico. Researchers have captured and tagged migrating butterflies – attempted to throw them off by relocating them from Nebraska to Washington DC. After a few days these cheeky navigators correct course, still managing to arrive on time.

Unlike their parents and grandparents – this migrating hoard is allotted an astounding 9 months to complete business. Two months migration, a winter in Mexican highland forests – huddled together for warmth on mature trees – and finally spring mating to produce the next Texas bound generation, starting the cycle over again.

Stopping to ponder this for a moment is truly humbling. Not so much a question of “why butterfly” as a testament to nature working in spite of our disregard or indifference. Nothing happens without a reason – science can’t answer why every third generation of Monarch Butterfly has nine times the life expectancy, crosses Great Lakes, plains, desserts and mountain ranges to arrive at precisely the same time every year in Mexico.

I don’t care if we ever know why – all that matters is understanding it’s that way for good reason. Listen up illegal loggers who creep about at night cutting down butterfly trees, all you land developers, miners, and reckless nincompoops – your false sense of ingenuity, greedy disregard and short sightedness bites us all in the ass.

Butterflies pollinate food crops like corn. Milkweed, the only plant they deposit eggs has dwindled with modern use of pesticides –  distribution has decreased by over 50%. Deforestation, harsh winters followed by summer drought and land development have seen numbers drop drastically the last few years.  Go out and plant some milkweed – nature’s balance dictates butterflies – don’t question why it matters, just ponder that it does.


How Many People?

The “balance of nature” has become an abstract concept in terms of our place in the puzzle. A industrialized world which tends to remove humanity from the equation – “nature” becoming the realm of plants and animals,  beyond our lofty”king of the hill” mentality. All too easy to forget mankind plays a pivotal position in Earth’s balance.

Prior to mechanized farming and medical advances such as immunization – world population chugged along at a manageable pace. Somewhere between one and two billion people until the mid 17th, early 18th century when food production tripled along with the number of mouths to feed. From a billion or so in 1850, two billion by 1930, to over seven billion today – taking a moment to ponder our planets’ breaking point is a sobering thought.

Water is a finite resource – as with fossil fuels, we can’t manufacture it. Over a billion people on Earth have limited access to fresh water. China, India, the Middle East, California – all face epic water shortages. Available land for farming has reached critical mass – there simply isn’t any more, and what we do have is stretched to a breaking point by over-use and water shortages.

When China introduced the “one child” policy in 1979 I thought of it as totalitarian meddling – reproductive legislation, yet another blight on an already oppressed country. Impossible to fathom public outcry if western politicians dared hint at such a travesty of human rights.

Like it or not, we all need to ponder how much our planet can sustain. By 2050 our population is projected to top 10 billion. I don’t know what the answer is. Are we willing to play golf on artificial grass, turn off the fountains in Las Vegas, collect rain water for our yards, flush the toilet after every third use, and learn to live with dirty cars? Would we be willing to settle for our “share” of available water in exchange for restoring the balance of nature.

Ponder the balance of nature and ask yourself – how many people can the Earth support? Nature’s balance depends on the answer.