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Zombie Science

Posted by rdsayler | October 27, 2023

wildlife and zombie collage

A Citizen’s Guide to Conserving the Living Dead

Any good ecologist worth their salt knows that ghosts and zombies are real. If you don’t know that, your science education is deficient. Let’s fix that.

As a science educator and researcher, I don’t really follow pop culture closely so I’ve never paid much attention to the ongoing zombie craze. For many years now, they seem to be everywhere in movies, television, even commercials. But I do know a bit about real zombies and how important they are to the world. So as a conservation biologist, deeply concerned with saving life on Earth, I’m here to implore you to help me conserve zombies. It’s urgent. I beg you. Please, please, help me save the zombies.

If we don’t conserve zombies, there’ll be hell to pay.


Most people think zombies are fictitious, or at least, they hope they are! Ghosts, the living dead, or having the dead return to partial life to torment people are fears and themes that have haunted the human psyche and imagination since the dawn of our intellect. Now there’s always been good reasons for humans to be afraid of the dark. After all, we don’t see that well at night compared to many animals, and for night-stalking predators, we probably seem like a walking, talking “Big Mac.”

But being afraid of death defines us as intelligent and sentient beings. We are aware of our mortality and the finality of death and it scares us. Of course, zombies are a special case. They’re in that awkward halfway place between being able to enjoy sitting in a bar having a cold beer and laughing with your friends versus looking in a mirror and watching your ear rot off and fall on the floor. You know, that same kind of feeling you have during some faculty lectures! 

zombie cartoon character
Photo by julien Tromeur on Unsplash.

What sometimes happens during faculty lectures…


Cool.  Cool, Cool, Cool…” — Zombie


**The preceding video link is included for entertainment purposes only and does not imply endorsement of any commercial products or services.

Zombies in the Real World

If we put human imagination and irrational fears aside, there are well documented cases of real zombies in the natural world. So how does one become a real zombie (other than by attending a faculty lecture)?

First, let’s have a short video lecture on the subject. I know. I know. You don’t have to say anything…. 

If the preceding brief overview of real zombies piques your interest, you may want to look at these examples in greater detail for yourself at Scientific American:

Zombie Ants

Zombie Bees


Are You Already a Zombie? (and just don’t know it…)

For those of you who haven’t already been zombified by this lecture, do you now worry about some hidden parasite turning you into a real zombie? Well, if you aren’t, maybe you should be!

As we saw in our video lecture, it isn’t just ants, bees, and other insects that can be turned into zombies in the real world. Mammals are susceptible to zombification, or behavioral manipulation and behavioral problems associated with parasites and their resulting influences on our brains. To see how cats may indirectly zombify humans, see this story that I call: Fatal Attraction.

cat with mouse in mouth
[Photo: Cat with a mouse. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Lxowle. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported.]

Paranoid schizophrenia is a serious medical condition, so I won’t make jokes about it. But you might wonder what we will eventually learn about the ability of parasites and viruses (and perhaps our own DNA) to manipulate their hosts like puppets.

What’s the Matter? Parasite Got Your Tongue? 

If you’re willing to stretch the definition of zombie just a little, which I assume should be easy given all the rotting flesh purportedly involved, then even fish might become partial zombies. At least I’m guessing it might be somewhat of a fish nightmare to have your own tongue replaced by a mucous-eating parasite (see: Parasite That Replaces a Fish’s Tongue). Brings a whole new meaning to something tasting fishy, doesn’t it? 

tongue-eating parasite in mouth of fish
[Photo: Fish with a tongue-eating parasitic louse. Credit: Galveston Island State Park – Texas Parks and Wildlife / Facebook.]

Obviously, you’re not a fish. Still, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to contact that sleep clinic you heard about and check out the implications of your snoring and sleeping with your mouth open all night. Just a suggestion. And maybe you should inspect that next piece of sushi just a little bit more carefully.

A Zombie Philosophy 

Some of you who have taken my course in Conservation Biology have had the chance to see my “Philosophy of Worms.” Now let us develop a “Philosophy of Zombies.” Even if animal zombies are real, you still might wonder, what do any of these situations have to do with conservation in the real world?

If left to our own devices, it is doubtful that many of us would imagine these strange cases of ants, bees, and rats being turned into zombies or being manipulated to their doom by parasites. However, these examples are but a tiny revelation of the unimaginably complex and intricate workings of the natural world and the powerful forces of evolution and natural selection. The workings of the real world are so amazing they’re almost beyond imagination.

Conserving Ecological and Behavioral Processes

There are certainly good reasons to conserve real “zombies” given that they represent complex ecological processes that have evolved in the natural world. Many critical ecological processes and behavioral adaptations are being endangered by humans as we convert the Earth to our selfish needs, which, come to think of it, makes us much like other manipulative parasites, doesn’t it? For example, shouldn’t the wondrous migration of the beautiful monarch butterfly be an ecological and behavioral process that we should fight hard to conserve on Earth?

Your Zombie Identification Guide

There is yet another logical, but scary reason, to consider zombies in the future of conservation. And so I ask you to consider, which species are we looking at now that actually represent the walking dead? Which species are almost certainly doomed to extinction, but we just don’t know it yet? Which species may only survive in some small, scattered populations or have just a few individuals hanging on to their existence by a thread, but their future is almost certainly that of death and extinction? 


One-horned rhinoceros
[Photo: One-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicorns). Source: Wikipedia. Author: Lurey Rohit. License: CC BY-SA 4.0]

It truly is a scary thought that in some cases, despite our best science, we are almost assuredly looking at some of the living dead around us.

Perhaps our grandchildren and great grandchildren may not see these species alive and will look back in wonder and amazement at the bountiful world in which you and I currently live.

Will their own world then be hotter and missing many of  the species now alive? 

Will they blame us and wonder how we could let such a thing happen?

We just don’t know for sure which threatened and endangered species have a chance to be saved and which are the equivalent of the living dead walking among us.

And on that scary note, I wish you:  


Happy Halloween!

R. Sayler
WSU School of the Environment


Advanced Zombie Studies: See extensive article list in The Conversation – Articles on Zombies


About: Research Scientist/Assoc. Prof./Project Director for the WSU Arboretum in the School of the Environment at Washington State University; conservation biologist and avian ecologist.

Endnotes: This lightly-edited and updated mini-lecture has arisen from the dead from class instructional materials originally written and used in my course in Conservation Biology in 2014.

Disclaimer: The opinions and comments in this lecture are my own and do not in any way reflect official policy or positions of the School of the Environment or Washington State University.

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