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Fri Dec 6, 2013, 07:51 PM

This Fly Hijacks an Antís Brain ó Then Pops Its Head Off [View all]

O hai! A newborn Pseudacteon litoralis male emerging from a fire ant's disembodied noodle. Image: S.D. Porter, USDA-ARS

We humans were just so proud of ourselves when we invented the guillotine after millennia of experimenting with how best to take heads off shoulders. Maybe a bit too proud, what with that whole Reign of Terror thing. Unbeknownst to those over-enthusiastic revolutionaries, evolution already had produced its own perfect beheader ó a tiny fly whose larvae burrow into ants, take control of their minds, and eventually sever their heads from the inside.

These are natureís flying guillotines: the epically named ant-decapitating flies of the genus Pseudacteon.

Twenty years ago, Sanford Porter, then an entomologist with the University of Texas, was in South America studying fire ants and discovered their numbers were a fraction of those of their invading comrades to the north. Here in America, these two introduced species, the red and black fire ants, cause billions of dollars each year in agricultural damage, pest control costs, and sweet, sweet profits for hospitals treating their excruciating stings.

So Porter searched for a natural enemy that might be keeping southern populations in check. Following a tip from a colleague, he began seeking out fire ants fending off attacks from tiny flies. He gathered some of these besieged individuals and returned to the United States, where he soon began finding maggots in the antsí bodies. ďAnd around about two weeks [after that] I found that the heads would fall off,Ē he told WIRED, ďand lo and behold I could see the pupa inside the antís head.Ē


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