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Ants turned into zombies by 'mind-control fungus'

Ants were turned into zombies by a mind-control fungus 48 million years ago, scientists have learned.

The evidence is an ancient fossilised leaf that bears unmistakable traces of a natural horror story.

Dr David Hughes, from England's University of Exeter, who studied the find, said: "This leaf shows clear signs of one well-documented form of zombie parasite, a fungus which infects ants and then manipulates their behaviour."

The parasite, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, appears to take over the minds of the ants.

The insects are forced to leave their nests and head for a leaf that provides ideal conditions for the fungus to reproduce.

The ants are compelled to bite hard on a major vein of the leaf before dying.

The "death grip" leaves a very distinctive bite mark and places the ant in a perfect position for the fungus to grow and release its infectious spores.

Scientists discovered such a bite mark on a 48-million-year-old leaf specimen from the Rhine Rift Valley in Hesse, Germany.

"The evidence we found mirrors, very closely, the type of leaf scars that we find today, showing that the parasite has been working in the same way for a very long time. This is, as far as we know, the oldest evidence of parasites manipulating the behaviour of their hosts and it shows this parasitic association is relatively ancient.

"Hopefully we can now find more fossilised evidence of parasitic manipulation. This will help us shed further light on the origins of this association," the scientists said.

The research is reported in the Royal Society journal 'Biology Letters'.

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