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Unravelling the diversity behind the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis complex: three new species of zombie-ant fungi from the Brazilian Amazon.


In tropical forests, one of the most common relationships between parasites and insects is that between the fungus Ophiocordyceps (Ophiocordycipitaceae, Hypocreales, Ascomycota) and ants, especially within the tribe Camponotini. These fungi have the ability to penetrate the exoskeleton of the ant and to manipulate the behaviour of the host, making it leave the nest and ascend understorey shrubs, to die biting onto the vegetation: hence, the term zombie-ant fungi to describe this behavioural changes on the host. It is posited that this behavioural change aids spore dispersal and thus increases the chances of infection. Despite their undoubted importance for ecosystem functioning, these fungal pathogens are still poorly documented, especially regarding their diversity, ecology and evolutionary relationships. Here, we describe three new and host-specific species of the genus Ophiocordyceps on Camponotus ants from the central Amazonian region of Brazil which can readily be separated using classic taxonomic criteria, in particular ascospore morphology. In addition, we also employed molecular techniques to show for the first time the phylogenetic relationships between these taxa and closely related species within the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis complex, as well as with other members of the family Ophiocordycipitaceae.