Science

Cordyceps: The Most Terrifying Fungus You’ve Ever Seen

It's tough to be a bug

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.

cordyceps-ant
Image: Flickr/bgv23 via CC by 2.0

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.

Image: Flickr/Katja Schulz via CC by 2.0
Image: Flickr/Katja Schulz via CC by 2.0
cordyceps-stem
Image: Flickr/David Evans via CC by 2.0
The Stem
Image: Flickr/Jason Hollinger via CC by 2.0

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.