Real Parasites That Turn Their Hosts into Living Zombies

Image courtesy of Jamie McCaffrey via Flickr

Zombies are completely ingrained in popular culture; from movies, to television, to video games, zombies are there and people continue to buy into the craze. But how would we feel to know that zombies can exist outside of fiction, and terrorize real life?

In nature, certain parasites have the ability to take control of a host’s body and manipulate it for the parasite’s own self-preserving needs, even causing certain functions to continue even after the host is dead.

In short, this means that there are parasites that turn other creatures into real-life zombies. Here are some real examples of how parasites can create the undead:

Image courtesy of Sharadpunita via Wikimedia Commons

Female Jewel Wasp

The female jewel wasp uses a special toxin to paralyze a cockroach, which will then serve as a “living nursery for her young.” After first using the toxin to paralyze the front legs, she then uses it on the head, taking control of the cockroach’s ability to move.

The wasp then guides the powerless cockroach, which carries her egg and becomes its food, into a burrow where the pair will be protected until the larva grows into an adult.


Image courtesy of coniferconifer via Flickr

Dinocampus coccinellae

Dinocampus coccinellae is a wasp that is roughly the size of an ice-cream sprinkle, and preys upon ladybugs. The female wasp uses her stinger to inject eggs and chemicals into the underside of a ladybug, which later hatch as larva to devour the ladybug from the inside.

After three weeks, the larva emerges from the body but retains control of the ladybug’s mind, and creates a cocoon for itself underneath the immobilized ladybug. The parasite then uses the ladybug as a bodyguard while it is cocooned.

If a predator approaches the pair, the ladybug thrashes its legs to scare the predator away. When the adult wasp finally emerges from the cocoon, the ladybug dies.


Image courtesy of Alastair Rae via Wikimedia Commons

Horsehair Worm

Hairworms are ingested by an insect, often crickets, in the larval stage and can grow to be four times the length of the host. 

These types of parasitic worms use mind-controlling chemicals that manipulate the host to do their bidding, which in this case means throwing itself into a body of water (and crickets don’t know how to swim). The hairworms emerge once in the water, to carry out the plan again.


Image courtesy of Penn State via Flickr

Ophiocordyceps (Fungi)

Fungi from the genus Ophiocordyceps are commonly referred to as “zombie-ant fungi.” This type of fungi needs the help of an ant to complete their life cycle, and can inject chemicals into an ant’s head to take control of the central nervous system.

The fungus controls the movement of the ant, making it climb onto a low leaf or twig in an area more suitable for fungal growth, where it is then killed. A spore-releasing stalk grows out through the dead ant’s head as a trap to infect more ants.


Cheyenne MacDonald