The Walking Dead's Variant Walkers, Explained

After 11 seasons of walkers, roamers, and lurkers, there's another kind of zombie on The Walking Dead: variants. When Aaron (Ross Marquand), Jerry (Cooper Andrews), Lydia (Cassady McClincy), and Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari) encounter a brainy walker exhibiting abnormal behavior, Jerry suspects an aberration. Aaron fears something more dangerous: are these stronger and smarter walkers a mutation? An evolution? But this is not the first time these new zombies, as seen in Season 11's "Variant" episode, have appeared on The Walking Dead or the Walking Dead Universe.

"There's roamers and lurkers," Aaron says in the episode. "I mean, we've all seen some that come back to the places that they remember. I've heard stories about walkers like this that can climb walls and open doors. I was never sure if they were just stories. Maybe there's other kinds, too. I hope not."

Variant Walkers

The zombie first seen in a walker herd on the road to Oceanside is a variant. This walker is more alert and aware of food, following the group when they hole up at a walled-off building. This variant climbs a wall and unlocks a gate, unleashing the walker herd inside the walls:

(Photo: Graphic: ComicBook Images: AMC Studios)

The variant wrestles with a weapon, turns a doorknob, ascends a ladder, and picks up a rock to use as a weapon before it's killed by Aaron with a knife stab through the brain:

(Photo: Graphic: ComicBook Images: AMC Studios)

This is not the first variant seen on The Walking Dead. The 2010 pilot, "Days Gone Bye," introduced two walkers with different abilities that could classify them as variants.

At a Georgia gas station, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) witnesses a little girl (Addy Miller) pick up a teddy bear from beneath a car. It's not until she turns around that Rick realizes the girl is a walker, which he puts down with a bullet to the head.

(Photo: Graphic: ComicBook Images: AMC Studios)

In that same episode, Rick watches through a peephole as a female walker turns the doorknob of the house where Morgan Jones (Lennie James), his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), and wife Jenny (Keisha Tillis) holed up at the onset of the outbreak. It's revealed that the zombified Jenny roams the neighborhood, sometimes returning to the house where she succumbed to fever and died after a walker's bite.

(Photo: Graphic: ComicBook Images: AMC Studios)

In Season 1 Episode 2, Rick and Glenn (Steven Yeun) encounter what appear to be variant walkers on the streets of Atlanta. This episode shows some walkers scaling a fence, while another uses a rock to smash a department store window in a homage to Night of the Living Dead.

(Photo: Graphic: ComicBook Images: AMC Studios)

Variant Walkers in TWD Universe

These smarter and stronger walker variants have appeared elsewhere in TWD Universe. 

On Tales of the Walking Dead, naturalist Dr. Chauncey Everett (Anthony Edwards) studies the behavior psychology and migration patterns of "Homo mortuus" in The Dead Sector: a 40-foot deep, 200-meter wide man-made trench spanning hundreds of miles between Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. 

One of his subjects is an alpha walker he's termed "Specimen 21": Everett's former colleague in life, Dr. Moseley. Everett twice observed Specimen 21 killing a wild dog and — instead of consuming the prey — leaving it behind for the trailing herd. "I found his actions to be a selfless display of generosity," Everett notes. "Instinctively, he's a protector, making sure the rest of the herd is taken care of." This behavior is atypical of walkers, suggesting Specimen 21 is another variant.

(Photo: Graphic: ComicBook Images: AMC Studios)

post-credits scene ending the series finale of The Walking Dead: World Beyond revealed that CDC virologist Dr. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich) was aware of these "variant cohorts" since the outbreak of the walker apocalypse in 2010. 

Inside a French lab marked with graffiti — Les morts sont nes icl, or "The dead are born here" — a decade-old recording of Jenner plays as an armed man (Oryan Landa) confronts a French doctor (Carey Van Driest). 

Questioned about the Primrose team of scientists who worked at France's la Biomédicine DDMI, the woman tells the man: "They weren't here when it happened. When you all did what you did. They were at the conference in Toledo."

That's Toledo, Ohio: home state of the Commonwealth community on The Walking Dead.

"In some way, it is a throwback to some of the walkers we saw back in the very, very first season of The Walking Dead. But not everybody ever encountered those walkers," Walking Dead executive producer and showrunner Angela Kang explained during San Diego Comic-Con. "It's almost like it was a variant that was regional. And anytime there is a change to the rules, that means that people just need to be that much on their game because they're realizing that the methods that they used to survive don't quite work the same way."

Kang added: "Our survivors need to be very, very smart and try to adjust to that, and that is one of the many conflicts that they will be dealing with in the final block of episodes."

Follow @CameronBonomolo and @NewsOfTheDead on Twitter for TWD Universe coverage all season long. New episodes of The Walking Dead's final season premiere Sundays on AMC and AMC+.