Cordyceps: The Most Terrifying Fungus You’ve Ever Seen

By on May 28, 2013 // Science // 14 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

thelastofus-cordyceps

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

last-of-us-fungus

Image: The Last of Us

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

Enjoy this article? Please share, and enter your email below to receive free updates!

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.
Advertisement

  • 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.

  • Pingback: Beau Handsome | California Southern()

  • Pingback: Night of the living "Happening"—zombie genre has biological credibility | Science News()

  • 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 🙂

    • We do have fungi in our bodies, primarily in the colon. You could say that technically that’s still “outside the body”, fact remains that it’s part of our gut flora. It’s not unusual for people to get internal Candida infections either, even if their immune systems aren’t entirely broken down. It is thought that the taxonomic kingdom Fungi is kingdom Animalia’s closest relative and those organisms have a high affinity for animal bodies.

      In any case a Cordyceps mutated enough to infect humans would necessarily develop traits that let it get around our immune systems.

  • 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.

    • Human beings can have a pretty low IQ and still be able to ambulate. It doesn’t take being an Einstein. A fungus that wanted to take us over would just shut down the more complex brain functions. By the way, you have no idea whether ants have consciousness. We’re learning now that TREES have a rudimentary (at least) sort of awareness and can communicate with one another using biochemistry. Ants are more complex than trees. I’m not gonna put anything past them.

    • Rifneno

      I’m sorry, did you actually just say that you think trees are capable of thought? I must’ve misread that.

    • Mandalore

      It’s very possible for a fungus to evolve. It won’t happen now, but maybe in a few (hundred) centuries. Of course, we do have scientists who are always messing around with things that they shouldn’t… Anything is possible.

  • Ursula

    A couple years ago I had a severe allergic reaction to cordyceps – it was in a supplement and it was a free add-on to a purchase so I popped it, and a few hours later, started itching. By the middle of that night, my lower back had swollen bboth sides of the spinal column, then started getting worse! Popped a benadryl, by the time I went to the doc that morning it was subsiding, but by then my face had lumps too. Most severe allergic reaction ever! Weird. Strange this site showed up in a mandela effect search, and I am new to the ME but this happened a couple years ago.