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It’s time for another Nightmarish Nature segment. So far we’ve considered Vampires Among Us and Perilous Parenting; this time we will look at Freaky Fungus.

Drawings of mushrooms with spots and little cap hats
Drawings of mushrooms with spots and little cap hats

Maddening Mushrooms

Now I’m not talking about your aunt’s mushroom pate, I’m talking about mind-controlling tendrils of terror. They aren’t animals, they aren’t plants, they aren’t yummy mushroomy goodness, they aren’t magical (at least not the good kind of magic) and they’re actually kind of terrifying, especially if you’re a bug.

Essentially there are whole subspecies of cordyceps fungus (as well as others) that spread through insect hosts, and no, it’s not like a bad dinner party where your guests just don’t take hints but more a sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Well, more specifically like The Last of Us. Variants of these fungi are very targeted to specific bugs, and certain species of ants, beetles, spiders and even mantids can find themselves afflicted by this. The results aren’t pretty, and it’s also called zombie-ant fungus for good reason.

Drawing of caterpillar, wasp and beetle with text bubbles "HELP" "We're doomed" and "Run away!"
Drawing of caterpillar, beetle and wasp with text bubbles “HELP” “We’re doomed” and “Run away!”

Spore Sabotage

So the fungus spreads its spores through the air where they comes in contact with new host insects of its selected type and are absorbed into the body. Once they find an appropriate specimen they begin the takeover… An insect affected by the fungus will begin to behave oddly as the fungus signals its brain to act in ways that the fungus needs it to in order to complete its own life cycle. The host will not engage in its normal buggy activities while the fungus drains it of nutrients and prepares it for the next wave of terror. The fungus can even grow tendrils to control muscle movement, puppet-mastering the host’s body.

Drawing of ant with text bubble "Truly terrifying"
Drawing of ant with text bubble “Truly terrifying”

High Times

As the fungus grows and prepares to send forth spores, it sends signals to its host to climb as high as it can, perch atop a plant or blade of grass or whatnot, and clamp down with its jaws in a death grip, to contort itself into a perfect spore-dissemination cannon. The fungus will grow long tendril blooms out of the insect’s body to rain down more terror on new unsuspecting hosts going about their buggy business. If the insect is a social creature (like an ant), it’s nest-mates may also try to drive it as far from their home as possible out of fear of what will soon come to pass. As these spores implant themselves in new host insects, the cycle repeats itself.

Drawing of dead ant releasing spores
Drawing of dead ant releasing spores

Here’s a link to National Geographic, not for the feint of heart. This is enough to strike terror into the heart of every ant, among many other bugs.

So essentially here’s yet another reason to be glad you’re not a bug. Because you don’t want to fall victim to a zombie body snatchers fungus takeover. Frankly, I’d prefer the sneaker-squash to the slow and confusing death that this sort of thing brings.

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Jennifer Weigel is a multi-disciplinary mixed media conceptual artist residing in Kansas USA. Weigel utilizes a wide range of media to convey her ideas, including assemblage, drawing, fibers, installation, jewelry, painting, performance, photography, sculpture, video and writing. You can find more of her work at: https://www.jenniferweigelart.com/ https://www.jenniferweigelprojects.com/ https://jenniferweigelwords.wordpress.com/

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Original Series

Nightmarish Nature: Zombie Snails

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This time on Nightmarish Nature, we will look into zombie snails, because we were having so much with the Whore Snails recently. So this is a lot like the Freaky Fungus except that this time it’s a parasitic worm that is the cause of the horror… Leucochloridium paradoxum, the green-banded broodsac worm, forces snails to be a part of its nefarious plans to take over the world (well, really more just continue on keeping on in its strange and bizarre life cycle).

Hungry birds want nummins
Hungry birds want nummins

This Is What We Get for Eating Poop

The worm, which spends much of its life as a parasite in birds’ digestive systems, is part of a weird cycle that includes both birds and snails, though the snail end is much creepier. It starts when a snail ingests worm eggs in bird droppings. These eggs hatch into worm larvae that eventually turn the poor hosts into zombie snails! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Snails make questionable food choices, but I guess this comes from being where they are on the ecosystem clean up crew...
Snails make questionable food choices, but I guess this comes from being where they are on the ecosystem clean up crew…

The worm larvae work their way up into the snails’ brains and take over, hijacking them on suicide missions to continue their own life cycle. These worm larvae eventually grow large and worm their way into the poor snail’s eye stalks, pulsing and throbbing therein to resemble maggots or other tasty treats.

Zombie Snails
Zombie Snails

Mind-Control

The worms use the zombie snails to get into their bird hosts by mind-controlling them into climbing out of the shady undergrowth where they will be easily spotted by bird predators which will feed on them, ingesting the eye stalks and continuing the worm’s life cycle as it gets into the bird’s digestive tract. The huge, bulging eye stalks are irresistible to birds looking to snatch maggots and other delicious delicacies. Eventually, after the worms are well ensconced in its bird hosts, the bird poops out more worm eggs for unsuspecting snails to ingest, completing the cycle.

Birds love their grubs and maggots and other nummins, even if they are just zombie snails.
Birds love their grubs and maggots and other nummins, even if they are just zombie snails.

You can watch this in action on Nat Geo Wild: World’s Deadliest here, if you dare. Warning, it’s a little gross but not near so much as some of the other topics we’ve covered. If you enjoyed this slimy segment of Nightmarish Nature, please check out past segments:

Vampires Among Us

Perilous Parenting

Freaky Fungus

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Worrisome Wasps

Cannibalism

Terrifying Tardigrades

Reindeer Give Pause

Komodo Dragons

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Original Series

Nightmarish Nature: Komodo Dragons

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This time on Nightmarish Nature, we are considering Komodo Dragons.  These awesome lizards are the largest in the world and are native to Indonesia.  The lizards don’t get to be full-sized without feasting on a lot of meat and are known to prey on animals notably larger than themselves, even including deer and water buffalo.  But honestly, they pretty much eat anything they can get a hold of, including smaller Komodo Dragons.

Tongue-tied Komodo Dragon drawing by Jennifer Weigel
Tongue-tied…

Beyond Bad Breath

If you’ve ever wondered just how far really bad oral hygiene can take you, then look no further.  Although the Komodo lacks the bite strength to employ strangulation as an attack strategy, like crocodiles do, it is a dangerous and formidable hunter.  Long assumed to be the result of bacterial infection, Komodo bites are outright deadly, and this is in part due to their thick viscous saliva.  It’s all about the spit, ’bout the spit, that trouble. Eat your hearts out, Rottweilers, you ain’t got nothing on this.

And Komodo Dragons rend their victims’ flesh with serrated teeth and saw into the muscle, adding to the wounds’ ability to fester. Because of course they do. If you want to see some horrifying pictures of how this plays out, you can read about it in this NIH National Library of Medicine account of a zookeeper attack and recovery, complete with full color images not for the feint of heart.  Just wow, what a meaty mess…

All about the spit Komodo Dragon drawing by Jennifer Weigel
All about the spit…

Bacteria Versus Venom

It has more recently been shown that Komodos, like other Monitor lizards, actually do possess venomous saliva, and that this can inhibit clotting and cause blood loss, paralysis, and extreme pain, symptoms previously believed to result from bacterial infection.  It’s possible that their bite contains some of both, and in reality the why doesn’t matter so much as the ewww factor.

So regardless of whether there is venom or bacteria at play, a Komodo Dragon’s bite is nasty nasty.  Like you don’t want any part of those so-called love nips, even more so than with sharks.  (Side tidbit: male sharks have a propensity for biting during mating, so female sharks’ hides are thicker to withstand this sort of engagement.  In fairness, sharks use their teeth to explore the world around them, so this comes as no surprise really.)

"Hey baby..." You look good enough to eat shark drawing by Jennifer Weigel
“Hey baby…” You look good enough to eat

If you enjoyed this bite of Nightmarish Nature, please check out past segments:

Vampires Among Us

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Perilous Parenting

Freaky Fungus

Worrisome Wasps

Cannibalism

Terrifying Tardigrades

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Reindeer Give Pause

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Original Series

Nightmarish Nature: Reindeer Give Pause

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So reindeer aren’t generally thought of as all that scary, unless you have elafiphobia.  But since it is the holiday season and they are among the most celebrated animals this time of year, here are some fun facts about reindeer and their deer kin that are weird and even a bit creepy.

Female reindeer also have antlers and continue to grow them during Christmastime, whereas the males shed theirs in November.  So the antlered reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are girls.

Girl reindeer all dolled up and ready to go drawn by Jennifer Weigel
Girl reindeer all dolled up and ready to go

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Some reindeer make a clicking sound as they walk so they can stay together as they travel through adverse weather.  Better than yelling “Marco” (or “Polo” in response) around every bend…

Deer have very good night vision and reindeer can even see ultraviolet light, which helps them to spot predators and find food in the arctic.  Speaking of food, deer have been known to gnaw on bones or flesh (including that of humans) and even eat small animals like birds and mice.

Vampire Deer

Some deer species, like Musk Deer, grow fang-like tusks instead of antlers, making them appear vampirish. They use their tusks like other deer use their antlers, with males fighting one another during breeding season.  Tusks also come in handy when foraging for food and fending off predators.  Plus they really up the deer’s Goth presence…

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"Vampire" musk deer drawn by Jennifer Weigel
“Vampire” musk deer

And if you’re into teeth, upper canines among whitetail deer are rare and have been highly prized.  They’ve even been incorporated into prehistoric necklaces and royal jewelry, ‘cause teeth used as decorative accents are always a bit macabre.

Previously on Nightmarish Nature

So there are some fun, somewhat creepy facts about deer.  If you enjoyed this bite of Nightmarish Nature, please check out past segments:

Vampires Among Us

Perilous Parenting

Freaky Fungus

Worrisome Wasps

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Cannibalism

Terrifying Tardigrades ?

Oh, and in the spirit of the holidays, here’s the reindeer’s top pick for a Christmas song, Must Be Santa as sung by Bob Dylan

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