Ophiocordyceps humbertii, a parasitic fungi, and
Mischocyttarus mexicanus cubicola, a Neotropical paper wasp;
Volusia county, Florida (20 September 2015).
This was a fairly cool encounter. What you see here is a now-deceased pseudo-“zombified” Neotropical paper wasp enraptured by a parasitic fungus, most likely Ophiocordyceps humbertii. The fungus penetrated the paper wasp’s body and then essentially hijacked it, taking control. The hapless wasp was then directed to higher ground by the fungi (this one was about five feet above ground) and finally locked down in place via secretion (as you can see in the photos below). From this death perch, the fungus then began replication to spread its spores to other unwitting hosts to be colonized (fortunately not humans). You can see the fruiting bodies emerging like strange alien antennae in these images. While ants are a more common host for these types of parasitic fungi, social/paper wasps also make the list for species like Ophiocordyceps humbertii.
I figured now was a good time to post these pictures given the release of The Last of Us on HBO, a series (based on a game) about strain of Cordyceps fungi that takes over and zombifies the unwitting humans of Earth. Fortunately, Ophiocordyceps hasn’t made the jump to humans, although it did in M. R. Carey’s 2014 novel The Girl With All the Gifts, written concurrently with the script to the 2016 film of the same name. In that particular story, however, it was Ophiocordyceps unilateralis that did humanity in, not the star of these photographs, Ophiocordyceps humbertii. Still, representation matters, and Ophiocordyceps got its fantastical due.
I should note I’m fairly confident of both identifications in these photos (with community support); however, with a fungus like this, you can’t really be absolutely positive without some seriously close scrutiny — and that’s above my pay grade (and technological means), so to speak.
Here are a few more shots of the same biological incident. Check out those fungal outgrowths! A little over seven years later, I still have not been zombified, so I think we’re good for now.