Texas Pest Update

UT Austin researcher hopes to wipe out fire ants by turning them into zombies

UT researcher hopes to wipe out fire ants by turning them into zombies

Fire ants just can’t catch a break. They’ve been dealing with crazy ants taking over their habitats, and now a University of Texas at Austin researcher wants to turn them into zombies — using flies.

In a story from UT alumni magazine The Alcalde, Larry Gilbert, the director of UT’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, says he believes using the female phorid fly can help reduce the imported fire ant population.

 The fly larva travels to the ant’s head where it begins to feast on the blood and muscle tissue. Oh, and the larva can control the ant while this is going on.

The female phorid has the uncanny ability to turn a fire ant into a zombie by planting an egg inside the ant’s thorax. This causes the ant to react in distress, but then it continues on to the nest or its destination.

From there, the larva travels to the ant’s head, where it begins to feast on the blood and muscle tissue. Oh, and the larva can control the ant while this is going on.

Eventually the larva will consume the entire brain and cause the ant to wander around until the larva finds a proper nesting spot.

After two to four weeks, it uses a special enzyme to separate the ant’s head from its body and continues to nest in the head as it grows. Eventually a fly will emerge from the head and continue acting as a slasher flick villain to many other ants.

Gilbert believes that these flies, which are native to South America and serve as a natural predator to imported fire ants, can be a safe and cheaper way to keep fire ants under control in the southern United States where they exist without predators. He notes that in Brazil and Argentina, where the two species coexist, fire ants are not seen as especially troublesome.

Zombie Ants
A phorid fly (right) attempts to lay its egg in a fire ant.  Photo by Vipin Baliga
Phorid Fly
The female phorid fly is a natural predator to imported fire ants.  Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture
Zombie Ants
Phorid Fly