Monster of the Week: The Odorous Zombie


Caked in guts, axing walkers. Image via AMCTV
Caked in guts, axing walkers. Image via AMCTV

The biology of AMC's "The Walking Dead" can prove a tad confusing at times. Why do zombies eat? Why don't they rot? Who shaved Rick's neck in the hospital? As perplexing as these questions may be, most characters on the show are too preoccupied with survival to investigate.

But let us consider one proven fact about walker anatomy: They depend in large part on sound and smell to hunt their prey. What's more, as exploited in shockingly few episodes of the show, caking yourself in zombie guts will mask your smell with that of the walker, effectively making you invisible to the shambling cannibalistic corpses in your vicinity.

Such behavior from unnatural zombies isn't out of keeping with natural-world biology. For a potent example of real-life stink stealth, we turn to the world of silverfish.

Silverfish in the Colony

It's a zombie's world and human survivors have to scrounge out a living as best they can, all while avoiding the endless hoards in their midst. It's much like trying to scrape out a myrmecophilic (ant-loving) living inside an active colony of army ants -- which is just what the silverfish Malayatelura ponerophila does by masking its smell form the near-blind ants [source: Main].

According to a 2011 study published in the journal BMC Evolution, the silverfish invader rubs up against freshly-metamorphosed adolescent ants in order to leach their chemical coating of CHCs (cuticular hydrocarbons). Those CHCs serve as an ant's ID card. Without one, thieving intruders are killed and expelled.

Just like our strong-stomached zombie-killers, Malayatelura ponerophila coats itself in the stink of its adversaries to avoid detection. In either case, however, replication is necessary to avoid the following fate:

Left, army ants tear apart a Kleptoparasitic silverfish that has lost its CHC coating. Right, zombies make short work of a human.
Left, army ants tear apart a Kleptoparasitic silverfish that has lost its CHC coating. Right, zombies make short work of a human.
Images via Christoph von Beeren & Dead Films Inc.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.