Zombie fungus: The growing danger in your backyard?

A zombie fungus pops up in East Tennessee, but could it spread to humans?
Published: Mar. 5, 2023 at 4:15 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 6, 2023 at 8:53 AM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A zombie fungus that can control ants may sound like something from a movie, but it could actually grow right in your backyard.

The Cordyceps fungus has a disturbing way of controlling insects like ants, leading them back to populated areas in order to spread the spores.

“It can cause different behaviors depending on the species. They’ll cause them to climb up a tree branch and bite into the wood. They will die like that, and the fungus will come out the back of their head to produce spores,” said Django Grootmyers, a research assistant at the University of Tennessee.

The fungus became the subject of a line of mycology research at the university.

Concerns rose in the wake of the zombie show The Last of Us, which was inspired by Cordyceps. In the show, zombie-like humans controlled by the fungus spark an apocalypse, ending civilization. The experts said Cordyceps could never make the jump to humans, largely thanks to our superior immune systems.

“Humans and other vertebrates are fairly different. We have active immunity in our immune systems and very different nervous and circulatory systems,” said Grootmyers. “Also, we’re way bigger.”

As the weather gets warmer and wetter, other fungi could put crops in danger. Dutch Elm Disease and Chestnut Blight are both capable of killing groups of plants in warmer climates.