Garden of Horrors: Cordyceps

Garden of Horrors: Cordyceps

Garden of Horrors faithful probably expected we’d eventually come to this: a particular fungus (It’s always a fungus, why is it always a fungus!?) with a terrifying parasitic ability it infects and then enslaves its host. That’s right, today we’re looking at Cordyceps.

Here’s how it works: Cordyceps spores infiltrate an insect’s body, infecting them. Once infected, the real terror begins; the fungus takes control of the insect’s muscles, driving it upward where it forces the insect to fasten itself to a branch and waits for death. The fungus eventually fruits, pushing through the exoskeleton. This kills the host, and the added height helps spread the cordyceps’ spores over the most extensive area possible infecting others below, and the cycle repeats.

Cordyceps ignota parasitizing on a bird spider
Cordyceps ignota parasitizing on a bird spider – Photo by Ian Suzuki, Wikimedia Commons

Ghastly right? It’s pretty clear why these parasites have become known as the “zombie” fungus. The concept of something taking control of your muscles and dragging your conscious mind along for the ride is the sort of story you’d expect from a horror novel, not the natural world. It’s no wonder both Mike Carey (in The Girl with All the Gifts), and Naughty Dog Studios (in The Last of Us) used cordyceps as the source for their zombie apocalypse. The very idea is unnerving.

But it’s not all horrible. In Traditional Chinese medicine, Cordyceps is actually collected and dried and has been used for centuries to treat fatigue, sickness, kidney disease, and apparently low sex drive. There’s been other research happening as well looking into the other potential benefits of imbibing cordyceps. So, for those who always ask: “Can I eat this?” Yes! Yes, you can eat this weird parasitic fungus that wrestles control of the motor function of insects forcing them to climb higher and higher until the fungus kills them. Apparently, it’s good for you.

The 2006 BBC Earth special Planet Earth featured a small segment on the cordyceps, and it included some amazing footage. You can watch it in all its enthralling details below.

Funny enough, new research from Penn State University and the University of Notre Dame has only made our understanding of cordyceps more unnerving. As I implied above—and what Planet Earth got wrong at the time—cordyceps don’t take over its host’s brain. It only takes control of the muscles. This means the host is very much aware of what is happening to it as it performs its upward death march. Yikes.


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