Scary movies have nothing on nature itself. Eons of evolution have created plenty of nightmare scenarios with no screenwriter in sight. For example, the Atlas Obscura archives are full of tales of the undead all around us—bees that dig their own graves, caterpillars that explode, shrimp controlled by parasites—and scientists’ efforts to explain these totally real zombies. Here are a few of our favorites, along with our picks for refuge when Hollywood’s more familiar brain-eating monsters shamble to life.
by Isobel Whitcomb
Caterpillar fungus, also called cordyceps or even the “zombie mushroom,” is unusual in that it propagates itself by infecting one specific insect: the ghost moth caterpillar. Upon entering its gut, the mushroom slowly kills the caterpillar, then “mummifies” its body until there is nothing left a but a long, tube-like mushroom. It also has a long history in traditional medicine.
by Lindsay Patterson
The parasitic conopid fly is the mafioso of the bumblebee world: It forces bees to dig their own graves. The saga begins when a worker bee innocently approaches a flower where an adult female conopid fly lies in wait. After identifying its target, the fly dive-bombs the bee in mid-air, tackling it to the ground. The stunned bee quickly reorients itself and flies off. Nothing seems wrong, but it’s been implanted with an egg that will soon hatch and eat its body from the inside—a gruesome fate that ultimately has an impact on human food supplies.
by Natasha Frost
A couple of years ago, a gruesome plague infected oak eggar moth caterpillars in Lancashire, England. The baculovirus turned the inside of the bugs into goo and brainwashed them into getting up as high as they can. Once the zombie caterpillars were up there, they burst to spread the pathogen below.
by Kelsey Kennedy
If you’re a small, brown, marsh-dwelling amphipod, it’s in your best interest to stay hidden among the marsh grasses to avoid being snatched up by a bird. But a particular parasite has other ideas. Amphipods infected by a tiny, flatworm-like parasite turn a bright orange and rather than take cover in grass, they lounge out in the open at low tide.
by Gemma Tarlach
Parasitism is rampant in the natural world—nearly half of all animal species are parasites. And a large number of these uninvited plus-ones manipulate their host’s behavior in some way to produce an advantage for themselves, occasionally taking complete control of the organism they have invaded. Thanks to advances in imaging and molecular analysis, scientists are now able to understand some of the insidiously clever ways the body snatchers take over their victims. And yes, humans are involved.
by Julie Gerstein
From Alcatraz Island in California to the Towers of Svaneti in Georgia and the Korowai Tree Houses of Indonesia, here’s our list of some of the world’s most amazing bunkers and fortresses … just in case.