Erskine students hunt “zombie ants” with Penn State team

Posted on October 27, 2011

"Zombie ant" with behavior-altering fungus clings to a twig. Photo by Roel Fleuren

“Due West, Home of Erskine College…and Zombie Ants” is not a description that either the town or the college might be eager to embrace.

But the presence of “zombie ants” represents at least a small claim to fame and has led to some scientific fun, as Erskine students and faculty members discovered recently when they assisted visiting biologists with a research project.

Dr. David Hughes, who directs the project and is now an assistant professor of entomology and biology at Penn State University, came to the Due West campus last fall, when he was a fellow at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

At that time, he spoke to members of the biological honor society Beta Beta Beta about his research, which focuses on ants that succumb to a sort of mind control when infected by a parasitic fungus, thus becoming “zombie ants” behaving in ways that benefit the fungus.

The infected ants become a food source for the fungus, and the fungus damages the ant’s muscle and central nervous system.

The whole project began following Kim Fleming’s discovery of zombie ants on her land in Donalds, a town near Due West. She has since worked closely with Hughes.

This year, Hughes did not come to Erskine himself because of teaching commitments. But an eager team from Penn State came to campus Sept. 17 to continue Hughes’ work in the Due West area, where zombie ants have been discovered. Dr. Charissa de Bekker and her husband, biologist and photographer Roel Fleuren, who are natives of the Netherlands, and Dr. Anna Schmidt, from Denmark, stirred up some enthusiasm along with the ants that are the objects of their study.

Penn State researchers pose with some of the Erskine students who assisted them. From left, Kendall Cole, Charissa de Bekker, Katelyn Hoffman, Gabe Clinton, Roel Fleuren, Anna Schmidt, Carly McCalla.

“Dr. (Jan) Haldeman, Dr. (Naoma) Nelsen and I found the presence of the group to be refreshing, exciting and a novel experience for us and our students,” Professor of Biology Dr. Mary Lang Edwards said of the visiting scientists.

Placing baits, as well as tracking down ant nests and digging them up, were all part of a learning opportunity for Erskine biology students.

Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Naoma Nelsen took her microbiology class out one afternoon to work with the Penn State team. “It was a really good experience for the students,” she said.

 

Professor Emerita of Biology Dr. Jan Haldeman and her husband Richard, retired director of public relations at Erskine, enjoyed hosting de Bekker and Fleuren in their Due West home and became familiar with the team’s routine.

“Each day, Roel and Charissa left here early and returned late,” she said.

“Mornings were spent collecting ‘zombied’ ants on tree limbs in the woods. Afternoons, they looked for more and also put out bait to attract live ants.

Students set out bait to catch ants. Photo by Roel Fleuren.

“Then, after dark, baits were checked for ants and if ants were present they were traced back to colonies, which were marked to be checked the next morning, and if possible, dug up,” Haldeman recalled, adding, “They got at least one nest with a queen.”

Hughes’ continuing research at Penn State is designed to learn how the fungus might be used to control pest insects in homes and farms, according to the Penn State Science site.

“An exciting direction we are taking involves a collaboration between Penn State and the Broad Institute of MIT/Harvard to sequence the genome and transcriptome of the brain-manipulating fungus,” Hughes said.

“One of its goals is to identify the manipulator compounds which might be a good source of antibiotics as well as a tool against fire ants. The Broad Institute is an international leader in genome biology and is interested in the zombie ant fungi precisely because it has a background in medical science. A related fungus infecting Himalayan caterpillars has been used extensively to treat cancer, TB and malaria.”

After spending more than two weeks in the Due West area, de Bekker, Fleuren and Schmidt returned to Pennsylvania Oct. 3. “They hauled back a vehicle full of ants and fungi,” Edwards said.

“We’re in mourning. We went into mourning when they left and hope to lure them back next spring,” she said. “We heard fascinating stories about zombie ants and learned how to find them. Now we won’t be able to walk in the woods ever again without searching for that elusive zombie ant clinging to a tree branch.”

Erskine microbiology students go on an ant-hunting expedition. Photo by Roel Fleuren.

She noted that the visiting scientists “were very complimentary about our students and were eager to have these students join them in their research during their visit to Erskine.”

The researchers “also expressed the desire to have Erskine faculty and students to join them in research in their labs at Penn State in the future,” Edwards added.

“This represents a fantastic opportunity to bring students from two diverse but league-topping institutions together to work side by side on a common project,” Hughes said.