Vegetating Zombie Caterpillars!

Today I began choosing fungus specimens for part of a display for the upcoming gallery “Nature’s Library” at the Manchester Museum. The Herbarium houses a fairly large collection of fungus in the form of sheets, packeted and boxed specimens. A number of the boxed specimens are housed in the Materia Medica room along with herbs, gums and resins.

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Some of the most interesting specimens we found were boxed examples of the fungus Cordyceps. Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus that affects insects, and it does so in a way befitting a horror movie. At least a horror movie if you were an insect. Perhaps the most well known species of this fungus is Ophiocordyceps sinensis, also known as the Caterpillar Fungus. The caterpillars infected by this fungus are the larvae of the ghost moth genus Thatoides, which spend much of their life underground as larvae. They are prone to the fungus while they feed on roots. Once the caterpillar ingests or breathes in the fungal spores, it is infected. The Ophiocordyceps then effectively mummifies its host. The caterpillars die at the entrance to their burrows.
The dark brown to black fruiting body (or mushroom) emerges from the ground in spring or early summer, always growing out of the forehead of the caterpillar. The fungus is big business in China, and the most important source of cash income in Tibet, albiet at a grisly price. Because of its high value, inter-village conflicts over access to its grassland habitats occur. In November 2011, a court in Nepal convicted 19 villagers over the murder of a group of farmers during a fight over the prized aphrodisiac fungus. Seven farmers were killed in the remote northern district of Manang in June 2009 after going to forage for caterpillar fungus.

caterpillar (Image of shop in China by Erik Tรถrner)

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One of the specimens from New Zealand came with a handwritten note, which I have transcribed:

Aweto or Hotete, the large (night-butterfly) caterpillar from which the head of a parasitical fungus, “Sphareia” robertsii grows out, hence the name “vegetating caterpillars” amoung the colonists. A large portion of such caterpillars die of it while burying themselves in the ground for the purpose of changing into a chrysalis. A peculiarity of the fungus is this, that the stem bearing the seed spores at its end, rises nearly exclusively from the neck of the caterpillar between the head and the first ring of the body. Of hundreds of specimens that I examined, there was only a single one, the fungus of which had grown out of the aft end of the caterpillar.

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This group of Fungi attack nearly all families of insects. Below is a box we found containing cicada pupae with the fruiting body emerging from its body.

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Some Fungi go one step further, and not only parasitize their hosts, but go on to affect their behaviour. The following video clip from David Attenborough’s Life on Earth explains now, along with some eerily beautiful camera work:

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