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Bringing you to the forest to discover zombie ants with us!

We are a group of scientists who have the enormous good fortune to study “zombie ants” in rainforests across the world. What are zombie ants, you ask? Zombie ants are a fascinating phenomenon wherein an ant’s body and brain are completely hijacked by a parasitic fungus, which is called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (until recently called Cordyceps unilateralis) . During infection, the fungus causes the ant to behave in incredibly bizarre ways- from stumbling around to climbing up plants where it would never normally be found. Finally, the fungus causes the ant to lock its jaws on the underside of a leaf- where it then emerges from the back of the ant’s neck, delivering the ultimate death blow! This Cordyceps fungus is now well known and even features in the very popular video game The Last of Us and some of the ideas and biology from zombie ants have been featured in World War Z which David consulted on.

As scientists we are interested in how and why this zombie ant phenomenon happens. We work in field sites in Australia, SE Asia, West Africa and South, Central and North America (yes! Zombie ants are in your backyard!). We write scientific papers and once that is done we work closely with journalists to get our cool work out to the public. 

The cover of a scientific journal showing a zombie ant
The cover of a scientific journal showing a zombie ant

But we think we can do better and that is where we want Kickstarter to help. Using the web, we want to bring you with us to the forest to see how we work, be part of the discovery and learn about our planet. We want to capture the stunningly bizarre zombie ants for posterity, and use them to stimulate curiosity in students of all ages. 

Our KickStarter project has two main goals: (1) create an open access photographic exhibition of zombie ants from around the world and (2) develop innovative educational materials that involve students in the process of doing science. We need Kickstarter to help us travel to field sites in Borneo, Uganda, Vietnam, Brazil, and Louisiana, U.S.A. to photograph and collect zombie ants and to study how and why ants get infected. Along the way we will bring you with us- through video updates from the field, blog posts, and Q&A sessions with our scientists. 

Once back, we will turn material from the expeditions into lasting (and free!) photographic and educational resources. Your thoughts will be an integral part of this- we will engage people throughout the discovery and record what parts of the natural history most fascinate you. 

 1. Photography: Snapshots of threatened habitats 

Our work involves recording and documenting the biodiversity of zombie ant fungi and this includes discovering new species. However, due to habitat changes from human globalization and climate change, specialized species such as the zombie ant fungi are under increasing ecological threat. We need to capture their beauty before it’s too late so that future generations can learn about awesome zombie-making parasites! In the past, our work has been featured in various museums (such as the American Museum of Natural History), but we want to reach an even broader audience. 

This Kickstarter project will allow us to create and curate a permanent web exhibit of our photographs. These photos will be completely open access under a Creative Commons License, so that everyone will get to appreciate some of Earth’s most unusual creatures! In addition to our web exhibition, we will create a traveling exhibition of photographs and preserved specimens that will allow naturalists and zombie enthusiasts to experience their beauty firsthand. 

 2. Education: Bringing zombie ants to kids of all ages. 

We think science is learned best by seeing and doing, rather than by memorizing facts from a book. Kids are innately curious- we want to use zombie ants to stimulate interest in their world and create more citizen scientists. With this Kickstarter project, we will develop multimedia educational resources, including full lesson plans, video lectures, lab activities and interactive Q&A sessions with scientists- for students of all ages. The topics covered will span the range of biology and chemistry, from infectious disease and parasites to the cool chemistry underlying the zombie manipulation. Together, these resources will show students the process of doing science and inspire them to keep exploring their world. We want to be part of the growing educational revolution that seeks to foster creative thinkers by leveraging the power of the web. 

This isn’t just for kids, though. For adults that love natural history, we will have different content that allows you to enjoy the biology, learn about the different ecological settings where we work and interact via blogs where everyone can discuss on-going environmental and science issues. 

Sharing zombie ants with the kids at Penn State's Great Insect fair
Sharing zombie ants with the kids at Penn State's Great Insect fair
More zombie ant sharing
More zombie ant sharing

We love what we study and we want to share it with the world. Please consider supporting our Kickstarter project so that we can bring you with us into the forest!   

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

We have worked all over the world. David Hughes has worked in forests in 11 countries and 5 continents. We have a global network of collaborators and always work with local authorities. We know we can hit the ground running if we are funded.

Since we are a group we know we can sort problems collectively if they do arise. We will keep the blog very active and provide updates along the way.

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  • Pledge $1 or more
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    You will be listed on the wall of our web exhibit and on the permanent photography exhibit as well.

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  • Pledge $25 or more
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    65 backers

    A zombie ant photograph with a thank you note from the team, including an explanation of the science behind the image. You get to choose from where in the world that picture is taken.

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    3 backers

    Photo of your choice and personal emails from the lab and field throughout the project letting you know how it is going.

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    1 backer

    A personalized zombie ant calendar with a compelling image for each month and a cool science section explaining what is happening in each image, where it the world it was taken and how you helped. We can also put in other's names and you can make it a gift

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    2 backers Limited (18 left of 20)

    Your very own zombie ant! We will provide a mounted specimen of an ant killed by the zombie ant fungus. You can choose to have it gold coated on a stage which we would do if we examined it with powerful Scanning Electron Microscope. You will also get lots of biological details of your sample in a nice presentation booklet with images of the site and other infected ants.

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    The antPad! You get one of our custom built ant nests whittled out of wood and which we will have used either in the forest or the lab. A note of thanks will be engraved on the antPad.

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  • Pledge $5,000 or more
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    Members of the Hughes Lab will come to any school classroom (in the continental U.S.) of the supporter's choosing and will hold a 1-day, hands-on workshop on zombie ants, animal behavior, and rainforest biology that will be tailored to the age and interests of those students. We will also throw in a public lecture in your community. We will bring plenty of zombie ants, ant brains and microscopes!

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    You get to join us on an expedition in the Amazon rainforest and be part of our research team! You can work with us for any length of time between 3 days and 3 weeks. In addition to involving you directly in our work, we will show you lots of local points of interest and help you organize river trips to see the Amazon. We can advise on arranging transportation to Brazil, but that part must be paid for separately.

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    You become intimately involved in the naming of a new species of zombie ant fungi. We will involve you in the process, showing you the science, why it is a new species and get your suggestions on what species should be called. It does happen that new species are named after people. Names are permanent and it will outlive us all!

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Funding period

- (60 days)