Local Finding of Cordyceps, the Insect “Zombie-Making” Fungus

— Written By Lauren Diepenbrock and last updated by Jeremy Slone
en Español

El inglés es el idioma de control de esta página. En la medida en que haya algún conflicto entre la traducción al inglés y la traducción, el inglés prevalece.

Al hacer clic en el enlace de traducción se activa un servicio de traducción gratuito para convertir la página al español. Al igual que con cualquier traducción por Internet, la conversión no es sensible al contexto y puede que no traduzca el texto en su significado original. NC State Extension no garantiza la exactitud del texto traducido. Por favor, tenga en cuenta que algunas aplicaciones y/o servicios pueden no funcionar como se espera cuando se traducen.

English is the controlling language of this page. To the extent there is any conflict between the English text and the translation, English controls.

Clicking on the translation link activates a free translation service to convert the page to Spanish. As with any Internet translation, the conversion is not context-sensitive and may not translate the text to its original meaning. NC State Extension does not guarantee the accuracy of the translated text. Please note that some applications and/or services may not function as expected when translated.

Collapse ▲

A few weeks ago while harvesting blackberries at the Piedmont Research Station, I came across a rare but incredible find- a fly that had been infected with Cordyceps. This naturally-occurring fungus infects an arthropod host, takes control of the body as it matures, turning it into a zombie of sorts, and eventually erupts from the host to expose intricate structures that are filled with spores ready to infect new arthropod hosts (visual on infection in an ant host). Nature lovers might be familiar with the incredible BBC footage of this fungus from the Planet Earth series but likely will never encounter it in person. Because this was such a neat find, I wanted to share images of the infected fly (courtesy of Dr. Matt Bertone from the PDIC) and some information about this fungus.

Infected fly collected from Piedmont Research Station. Three projects from the fly's body are fruiting bodies of the parasitic fungus, Cordyceps, which also has extended hyphae to attach the fly body to the blackberry fruit

Infected fly collected from Piedmont Research Station. The three projections from the fly’s body are fruiting bodies of the parasitic fungus, Cordyceps, which also has extended hyphae to attach the fly body to the blackberry fruit. Photo by Matt Bertone.

General information about Cordyceps

Cordyceps is a genus of fungus that is found all over the world and can infect a wide variety of arthropods (Shrestha and Sung 2005, Sung et al. 2007, Evans et al. 2011). Most images of the fruiting stage of this fungus are shown on infected “zombie ants”, but that is only one of at least 400 different species of this fungus (Sung et al. 2007). While we know that there is a large amount of diversity within this grouping of parasitic fungi, there is still a lot that is not understood about them, including the entire host range. Despite gaps in our current understanding of these fungi, they have become interwoven in pop culture in recent years and have a long history of use in traditional medicines.

Cordyceps in pop culture

In 2013, fascination with this fungus led to its inclusion in The Last of Us, a video game set in a post-apocalyptic future with cannibalistic creatures that are infected by a mutant strain of Cordyceps that is capable of infecting humans.

 Cordyceps as traditional medicine

Cordyceps sinesis has been described to have medicinal uses in old Chinese and Tibetan medical books. This fungus develops in a caterpillar, the combination of which is found in high altitudes in the Indian state of Sikkim. It is thought to improve energy, appetite, stamina, libido, endurance, and sleep. Recent research has shown this traditional remedy to have medicinal potential, being shown to influence renal and hepatic functions in mice (reviewed in Panda and Swain 2011).