A 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that it’s possible the ant’s brain isn’t involved in the whole process at all. The paper found that as the fungus grows inside the ant’s body, its cells create an interconnected network of fibers that almost entirely fill the body cavity of the host ant — and it is that network that is most likely coordinating the ant’s movements. Using AI they discovered it’s possible the fungus didn’t need to enter the ant’s brain at all in order to manipulate the insect’s head, thorax, abdomen and legs.

“We found that a high percentage of the cells in a host were fungal cells,” said David Hughes, lead author of the study and associate professor of entomology and biology at Penn State, in a press release. “In essence, these manipulated animals were a fungus in ants’ clothing.”

Pretty much everything but the brain is entirely taken over by fungal cells. Which leads the researchers to believe that the fungus might be preserving the brain for a reason — perhaps in order to help the ant to survive until it can perform its final “death bite.”

Another 2017 paper co-authored by Hughes an published in the journal Plos One, explored genes that seem to allow Ophiocordyceps to activate different genes during the day and night to control its ant host.

Although these findings are compelling, it’s still not crystal clear what’s going on between Ophiocordyceps and its victims. What is clear is that it would be extremely difficult for a fungus to start hijacking human bodies in the way Ophiocordyceps has its way with ants. At least we have this small comfort.

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