"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

October 6, 2017

Arthrophaga myriapodina

The forests around Ithaca, New York is the scene of an arthropod murder mystery. The killer seems to cover their track well and leave no obvious clues behind - aside from the dried, empty husk of dead millipedes clinging to the top of fence posts, branches, and fallen logs. So who or what is the macabre killer leaving the desiccated corpses of millipedes in prominent places? There are pathogens with similar modus operandi that infect and mummify insects; most of them are fungi, and a few of them have been previously featured on this blog, the most well-known example being the "zombie ant fungus". So what is the identity of this millipede killer?

(A) Typical posture of zombified millipedes infected with Arthrophaga myriapodina, (B, C) fungal structures erupting from between the segments of zombified millipedes. Photos from Fig. 3 of the paper

To find out, a group of scientists collected zombified millipedes and examined their fungal infection in detail using microscopes and by sequencing specific sections of their DNA which are used to identify and distinguish different fungi species. With this, they were able to identify and describe the zombie millipede fungus - they named it Arthrophaga myriapodina. This fungus that belongs to a group called the Entomophorales - a group of fungi consisting mostly of insect killers. For example a few months ago, I wrote about another entomophorale fungus that zombifies soldier beetles.

But A. myriapodina is the first species of that group documented to target millipedes. And while this study is the first time that this fungus has been formally described in detail and given a scientific name, such "zombie millipedes" have been known from as long ago as 1886, with some specimens stored in herbarium collections dating back from the early 20th century.

Given this millipede-infecting fungus has had such a long, but under-studied history, these scientists compared their freshly collected zombie millipedes with similar specimens held in museum collections, along with photographs of similar zombified millipedes hosted on sites such as Flickr, BugGuide, iNaturalist and other online photo-sharing sites. Through the combination of collecting fresh specimens, examining museum collections, and searching for online photos, they were able to establish that this fungus is found throughout Northeastern North America, with a few sighting from Texas and California.

As mentioned above, A. myriapodina has a modus operandi similar to many fungi that infect insects. The fungal spores find their way into the host's body and proliferate, eventually taking over the host entirely. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, it changes the host's behaviour so that it would carry it to a position that maximise spore dispersal. For A. myriapodina, this means anywhere elevated, whether it is the top of a fallen log, tree branches, or bridge abutments. Once in position, the fungus  emerge from the zombified millipedes in the form of powdery masses that seep out from between the segments. After they have dispersed their spores, the remaining fungal mass withers away, leaving an empty corpse and a fairy ring of infective spores.

The climbing behaviour that A. myriapodina induces in millipedes is comparable to those caused by zombie ant fungi. It is also a remarkable example of convergent evolution with a group of viruses known as baculoviruses which infect caterpillars and cause them to climb to their deaths. Those viruses induces a syndrome called Wipfelkrankheit or "treetop disease" that makes infected caterpillar climb to a high place before melting their bodies and raining droplets of virus-laden caterpillar goo into the forest canopy.

The emergence of zombie millipedes also seems to be weather dependent, because they are typically sighted a day or two after a bout of heavy rain. Perhaps heavy inundation acts as a trigger for the fungus to produce its spores. More research is needed to understand how rainfall and other seasonal pattern affects the life-cycle and outbreak of this fungal killer.

Hodge, K. T., Hajek, A. E., & Gryganskyi, A. (2017). The first entomophthoralean killing millipedes, Arthrophaga myriapodina n. gen. n. sp., causes climbing before host death. Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 149: 135-140.

P.S. Some of you might know through my activities on Twitter (@The_Episiarch) that when I'm not writing these posts on new scientific papers about parasites, I also do illustrations, many of which are inspired by parasites and for the last two years I have been doing a series of illustrations known as "Parasite Monster Girls". So in keeping with the theme of this post, my most recent piece is Cordelia - a Parasite Monster Girl version of Cordyceps-infected zombie ants.