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Scientists Discover How ‘Zombie Fungus’ Converts Houseflies Into Necrophiles

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Nature can sometimes be as repulsive as it can be bewitching: for instance, there are organisms that survive by forcing certain species to mate with the dead.

The pathogenic fungus Entomophthora muscae has adopted what might be the most disgusting survival strategy ever: after infecting female houseflies with its deadly spores and killing them, it lures males to mate… with the corpses.

The unsettling findings were presented by the University of Copenhagen, with researchers analyzing fragrances emitted by the fungus and amplified in dead female flies, as well as looking into males’ sexual behavior.

As it infects female flies, the fungus slowly consumes them from within, eventually killing them and then emitting chemical signals known as sesquiterpenes that attract males.

“The chemical signals act as pheromones that bewitch male flies and cause an incredible urge for them to mate with lifeless female carcasses,” Henrik H. De Fine Licht, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Environment and Plant Sciences and one of the study’s authors, explained.

After a male fly mates with the corpse, it ends up being infected by the fungus as well, only to face the same gruesome fate.

What’s more unsettling is the fact that corpses tend to become even more attractive as time passes. According to the research, 73 percent of male flies mated with female carcasses that had died from the fungal infection between 25-30 hours earlier, while only 15 percent mated with the corpses which had been dead for 3-8 hours.

“We see that the longer a female fly has been dead, the more alluring it becomes to males. This is because the number of fungal spores increases with time, which enhances the seductive fragrances,” De Fine Licht said.

However, there’s more to the unappetizing findings than one could initially notice. According to the scientists, the study might help to come up with effective fly repellents in the future – not least due to Entomophthora muscae’s revolting survival strategy.

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