Flyday: From fly to zombie

Today it’s not about a specific fly, but about a fly-killing fungus: Entomophthora muscae.

Over the last few weeks, I found several dead flies hanging on leaves with white threads coming out of their bodies. I knew it had to be a fungus that was killing them, but this particular fungus is pretty gruesome in doing so.

A unfortunate victim

When a fly gets infected, it starts to get sick. Some flies are able to recover from this infection by making sure they stay warm & dry. That way the fungus has no cool, moist environment in which it can proliferate. However, the fungus strikes most often during spring and autumn, when it can get pretty wet due to all the rain. When a fly is unable to fight off the fungus, the fungus will eventually ‘control’ the fly. The fly’s behaviour changes; it will, for example, fly around erratically.

As if this is not bad enough, when the fly is severely infected, to the point of almost dying, the fungus will control the ‘brain’ of the fly so that it will climb on top of a blade of grass or a leaf, spread its wings and die. The fungus will then protrude from various cavities and segments on the fly’s body. By controlling the fly to die in this particular way, the fungus ensures it has the best possible chance to be spread further and making other flies sick.

Yes, a fly’s life ain’t always so fly. Not only do they have to look out for people like Chantal, but they also need to be wary of fungal infections. On the other hand, from a neuroscientific perspective, I find it fascinating to see how a fungus is capable of turning a fly into a zombie by taking over its brain functions.

Click on a photo to enlarge.




2 thoughts on “Flyday: From fly to zombie

  1. Great photos and very interesting blog, Davina. Some bees are affected in this way also, not just by fungus which affects the brain and takes over so it becomes kind of zombified, but also other parasites.

    1. Thank you, Pete! There are indeed many more species of fungi and other parasites that affect insects. It is interesting to read how these parasites achieve this.

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