Cordyceps: The Most Terrifying Fungus You’ve Ever Seen

By on May 28, 2013 // Science // 9 Comments

Cordyceps & You
Image: Flickr/Moisés Silva Lima via CC by 2.0

Think zombie apocalypses are impossible? Wrong! They happen all the time.

To insects.

Meet Cordyceps. This is a fungus that infects insects and arthropods. Oh, but this isn’t just any kind of fungus. It’s special.

This one attacks a host, replaces its tissue, and sprouts ominous stems that grow outside of its body. These stems eventually release spores into the air, infecting other hosts.

What’s even more interesting is that there are many different Cordyceps species, each for a separate species of insect.

Ants have it particularly bad.

Certain species of Cordyceps, such as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, can alter its host’s behavior.

In this case, once the ant is infected, the Cordyceps causes it to climb up to the top of a plant. The ant then attaches its mandibles to the leaf or stem so it cannot move, and then simply waits to die. Eventually, the fungus grows out of the ant’s body, and releases spores into the air.

Here’s a fascinating excerpt from BBC’s Planet Earth that has some footage of this mind-altering Cordyceps in action:

“The fungus is so virulent, it can wipe out whole colonies of ants…”

Ant colonies, however, are wise to Cordyceps; if a member of the colony is infected, healthy ants will carry the infected away from the colony, hopefully avoiding infection themselves.

Here are a few other images of Cordyceps in action, though be sure to check out this wicked photo of a dead tarantula, first.

Cordyceps And Humans


Image: The Last of Us

Cordyceps only affects insects; it can’t infect humans. In fact, it’s apparently often used to treat certain ailments, such as respiratory disorders, and can boost the immune system. I guess. I’ve never tried the stuff.

…and I don’t really want to.

But what if Cordyceps ever evolved to include humans on its host roster?

It’s a terrifying possibility, one that game developer Naughty Dog explores in their PlayStation 3 game The Last of Us. Check out this video to hear about their inspiration and see some of their “zombie” designs.

And here are a couple examples of what Cordyceps-infected humans look like in the game:

A Cordyceps-infected human in The Last of Us

Image: The Last of Us


Image: The Last of Us

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

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About the Author

Rob Schwarz is a writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. He manages Stranger Dimensions in between changing aquarium filters and reading bad novels about mermaids.

  • Wowwwwwwwwwww I haaaaaaaaaate that stuff, hahaha 🙂

    I have a test drawing from over a year ago in my idea-notepad, and it’s fungus-y thingies growing out of the pores of a human nose and mushroom/fungus growing out of a back but it grosses me out too much to even do a real drawing of it.

    Apparently I don’t mind showing faces cut in half and kids dying, but fungusy thingies growing out of bodies is my line! Ughhhh it’s so gross.

    • Rob

      Fungus growing out of nose pores? That’s an exciting image that will haunt me for the rest of the day. 😉

      I don’t know. I don’t like fungus, either. I think it’s the way it spreads, the spores. People can get really messed up by mold and stuff.

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  • Black_hammer35

    deep concept for a game

  • Cameron Austin Overton

    Well if that did happen, then they’ll just go on a plant and wait to die then, no zombie apocolypce, but possibility of suffering the most horrible death imaginable. glad im not an ant.

  • Shae Wiens

    This made me think of the movie “Splinter”.

  • Edward Marx

    As far as I know, the human immuno-system is well-tuned and prepared for all fungal species that why internal fungal infections only happen to people with defective immune systems and also that is why most of if not all of the common fungal infections occur on the skin. Mould itself cannot survive inside the human body. It’s the toxin that releases that can case a lot of problems in the respiratory tract and skin allergies. Very interesting topic, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Rifneno

    “But what if Cordyceps ever evolved to include humans on its host roster?”

    It can’t. There’s a reason it only effects insects: insects are the only things it can handle. They don’t think, they don’t feel, they’re little different than robots (real ones, not sapient sci-fi ones). There’s no consciousness to them. Their brains are too small, too simple. Mind controlling them is simple because there’s no real mind there to begin with. They’d be lucky if they ever managed to pull that crap on small rodents. Humans? Please. If controlling ants is playing a game of Space Invaders, then controlling humans is flying a space shuttle.