At the Zombie Cockroach Buffet, Bring Your Own Antibiotics
Meet the jewel wasp. This gorgeous, iridescent creature belies its gem-like appearance with a habit that, on the surface, is downright revolting: It turns cockroaches into mind-controlled zombies, chemically hypnotizing them in order to provide a helpless, living food source for the wasp’s young.
In short, it injects the cockroach brain with a neurochemical cocktail that, instead of killing it, forces the roach to surrender itself to the wasp’s will. It steals the zombie roach away to its burrow, where it lays its egg. That egg grows into a larvae that feeds inside the still-living roach, its prey trapped in a chemical noose that prevents it from escaping even as it is eaten from within.
Well, new research paints the picture a bit cooler. Cockroaches are filthy places, unsurprisingly. They harbor bacteria within them that could kill the young larvae, zombie host or not. It turns out that the young wasps secrete intense antimicrobial chemicals to keep their zombie roach buffet clean and disinfected.
The research involved one of the coolest tools I’ve ever heard of: Tiny windows were inserted in the roaches so the larvae could be observed!!
Want more detail on this squeaky clean zombie tale? Check out Carl Zimmer at The Loom, Ed Yong at Nature News, or Christie Wilcox at Science Sushi. Now where’s that alcohol gel? … I’m hungry.