5 Zombie Like Afflictions in the Real World

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One of the most enduring themes in the modern science fiction/horror genre is the zombie apocalypse. While zombies can be found in ancient lore and voodoo legends, modern zombies, as personified in entertainment such as the movie Shaun of the Dead and AMC’s The Walking Dead, can be traced back to the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Zombies have been seen as a metaphor for communism, apathy, and runaway consumerism in modern culture; there’s just something unsettling about a virus or bacterium that can get inside our skulls and manipulate us for its own nefarious purposes. But as the saying goes, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, so here are five strange but true zombie-like afflictions from the animal kingdom, including several that strike humans.


5. Fly Turns Bees into Mindless Breeding Hosts

Could a parasitic fly be to blame in part for colony collapse disorder?

A parasitic fly lays eggs in the abdomen of a honeybee; PLOS One

In recent years, scientists have been puzzled by the mysterious deaths of honeybees in North America, a phenomenon dubbed colony collapse disorder. Some scientists believe pesticides are to blame, but other more bizarre theories have been proposed, including exposure to cell phone and WiFi transmissions. The truth may be even stranger. In a paper published in January 2012 on the website PLOS One, John Hafernik, a biologist at San Francisco State University, outlined his accidental discovery of bees that had been attacked by a parasitic fly known as Apocephalus borealis. The fly is a well-known threat to bumblebees and paper wasps, but had never been found in honeybees. The fly lays eggs in a bee’s abdomen; as the larvae hatch, the infected bee becomes disoriented, walks around in circles, abandons its hive and dies. The final indignity comes after the bee’s death, when up to a dozen or so larvae burst out of the bee’s corpse, in a finale reminiscent of the classic scene in Alien. Whatever the cause of colony collapse order, it poses a serious threat to North American agriculture, as bees pollinate many important crops.


4. Parasite in Cat Feces May Affect a Person’s Behavior

Could the toxoplasma parasite affect people's behavior?

Photo credit: Ferran Jordà

Your cat may be turning you into a subservient zombie. OK, that claim is a bit of hyperbole, but the tale of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite is extremely weird. Found in cat feces, the parasite may infect up to 60 million Americans. And while benign in most cases — most people never even realize they have it — there is speculation that the parasite can affect a person’s behavior without their knowledge. Czech biologist Jaroslav Flegr, who has spent 20 years studying how toxoplasmosis affects humans, believes that the parasite can alter someone’s personality. The longer a person has been infected, the greater the impact. Oddly enough, women and men have different reactions; women with toxoplasmosis tend to become more trusting, while men become asocial (along these lines, other research in this field is pursuing possible links between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia.) Flegr’s work also has shown infected individuals have slower reflexes — now that sounds like the zombies we know from TV and movies — and may be 2 ½ times more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. Other research in this field suggests that in extreme cases, the parasite may even induce “crazy cat lady syndrome,” creating the urge to hoard cats. But some real zombie-like behavior has been observed in rats chronically infected with toxoplasma; these rats lose their traditional fear of cats, thus increasing their chances of being eaten and in turn helping spread more toxoplasma.


3. Fungus Eats Ant’s Brain, Takes Over its Body

A fungus that eats an ant's brain guides the ant to the perfect spot to die.

An ant overtaken by zombie fungus; David Hughes/Penn State University

An extraordinary drama plays out on the rainforest floor of South America. Ants, controlled by a fungal infection that consumes their brain, discover an overwhelming urge to find a moist location to die. The “zombie ant fungus,” or Cordyceps, takes over the ant’s brain in order to spread itself; this adaptation consumes the ant’s corpse as a “fruiting body” to feed the growth of further parasites. Curiously, some ant colonies avoid this fate, thanks to a second parasite that actually intervenes with the mind-control fungus. This is a wonderful, if macabre, example of the evolutionary “arms race” that is ever-present in the animal kingdom.


2. Drug Use Blamed For Cannibal Attacks

Bath salts have been blamed for a number of violent attacks in the past few years.

The so-called Miami Zombie, Rudy Eugene

In May 2012, Miami police confronted a man who, in a macabre encounter caught on video gnawed the face of a homeless man before being shot to death by police. One Internet hoax claimed that the man — dubbed the “Causeway Cannibal” and the “Miami Zombie” by the media — had a virus known as LQP-79, which if spread might cause the dreaded zombie apocalypse. Although officials originally suspected the attacker had been high on bath salts, a blood test showed no bath salts in his system. But media soon began noting reports of other bizarre “zombie” cases nationwide involving bath salts:
• In Florida in February 2012, a man high on bath salts began biting a police car.
• In June 2012, a Louisiana man high on bath salts went to his ex-wife’s house and bit her current husband in the face, chewing off a quarter-sized piece of flesh.
• In late 2010, a Louisiana man who snorted bath salts endured three days of hallucinations and psychotic behavior before cutting his own throat and then shooting himself in the head to commit suicide. The boy’s father told the Los Angeles Times, “This is not a high thing. This is like a pill that creates schizophrenia.”

These and other odd incidents are very reminiscent of the psychotic incidents once attributed to PCP, or “angel dust.” Fears over bath salts prompted a federal ban on them nationwide in mid-2012.


1. Rabies: The Real-Life Inspiration for the Zombie Myth

Rabies may have been the real-life inspiration for zombies.

Rabies victim; Centers for Disease Control and Preventio

As it turns out, a well-known viral disease may have been the precursor to modern zombie myths. Rabies is spread through transmission via animal bites (remember Old Yeller?) This can come from raccoons, bats or any type of wild mammal, although most people are familiar with rabies in domesticated dogs. Rabies is rare in humans. About 55,000 deaths from rabies occur each year, mostly in Asia and Africa. According to the CDC, only 49 cases were diagnosed in the U.S. from 1995-2011. Rabies attacks the central nervous system and induces paralysis, hallucinations, confusion, and yes, the urge to attack and bite someone. Rabies is fatal if left untreated, and the sooner it’s caught, the better the prognosis. Often, an individual may be bitten by a rabid bat (which may make it a possible tie-in with the original vampire myths as well) while sleeping and not even be aware of it.

Other infections and afflictions can induce altered mental states as well. Late-stage syphilis was a familiar cause of insanity before the age of antibiotics, and alcoholism can cause hallucinogenic psychosis. In the Middle Ages, outbreaks of something known as St. Anthony’s fire affected entire European villages. These outbreaks, caused by a fungus that infected wheat, caused LSD-like psychosis and hallucinations.


One More: A Real-Life Zombie Apocalypse Study

In 2009, a Canadian group did a serious study of surviving a zombie apocalypse. Students at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Carleton University studied how a zombie plaque would spread exponentially and devised possible strategies to combat such an outbreak. The study was even based on the typical B-movie zombie plot, including an outbreak, a latency period where individuals became infected zombies, and attempts at quarantine and a cure. The mathematical study marked players as S= susceptible, Z= zombies and R= those that are removed from the game entirely. Fans of The Walking Dead take note; the study concluded that in a city of half a million people, zombies will outnumber susceptible in about 3 days, necessitating the need to hit them hard, fast and often in order to keep the impending apocalypse at bay. Of course, the chief containment factor with such real-world outbreaks as Ebola may be that they’re too virulent. That is, patients display symptoms early on and hence are caught, quarantined, or die before they can travel far from the infection site. Diseases have a way of burning themselves out.


Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.