Monday, February 05, 2007

The Fungus and the Ant

We know fungi don't belong to the Plant Kingdom, nor do they belong to the Animal Kingdom. But given that they intake oxygen instead of carbon dioxide (like we do), eat plants instead of photosynthesizing (like we do),1 and can apparently, as evidenced in this video, tame some of the animals that walk the earth, they sure seem closer to the animal world.2

See what you think:

If you like text to accompany your viewing, Lawrence Weschler, in his book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology describes the ant and the fungus thusly:

"Deep in the Cameroonian rain forests of west-central Africa there lives a floor-dwelling ant known as Megaloponera foetens, or more commonly, the stink ant. This large ant - indeed, one of the very few capable of emitting a cry audible to the human ear - survives by foraging for food among the fallen leaves and undergrowth of the extraordinarily rich rain-forest floor.

On occasion, while thus foraging, one of these ants will become infected by inhaling the microscopic spore of a fungus from the genus Tomentella, millions of which rain down upon the forest floor from somewhere in the canopy above. Upon being inhaled, the spore lodges itself inside the ant’s tiny brain and immediately begins to grow, quickly fomenting bizarre behavioral changes in its ant host. The creature appears troubled and confused, and presently, for the first time in its life, it leaves the forest floor and begins an arduous climb up the stalks of vines and ferns.

Driven on and on by the still-growing fungus, the ant finally achieves a seemingly prescribed height whereupon, utterly spent, it impales the plant with its mandibles and, thus affixed, waits to die. Ants that have met their doom in this fashion are quite a common sight in certain sections of the rain forest.

The fungus, for its part, lives on. It continues to consume the brain, moving on through the rest of the nervous system and, eventually, through all the soft tissue that remains of the ant. After approximately two weeks, a spikelike protrusion erupts from out of what had once been the ant’s head. Growing to a length of about an inch and a half, the spike features a bright orange tip, heavy-laden with spores, which now begin to rain down onto the forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale."
Is this blurring the lines of what it means to be a vegan?

1 A few other fungi feats include making vitamin D (like we do), stalking animals (yikes!), glowing in the dark, and a few others I've outlined in my post "The Earth is the Mushroom's Gut".

2 Who was it that said only humans can tame animals? With all the raking, mowing, weeding, feeding, and pruning I do, I often feel like a slave to the flora in my backyard.

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