Sometimes a photo is literally a matter of life, death and zombies.
This disturbing image, winner of 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution photography competition certainly fits that description. Capture the fruiting bodies of a parasitic fungus emerging from the lifeless body of an infected fly in the Peruvian jungle.
The fungus-infested fly was one of many images submitted to the contest from around the world, with the aim of showcasing the beauty of the natural world and the challenges it faces. The newspaper revealed the winners August 18th.
Roberto García-Roa, a conservationist photographer and evolutionary biologist at the University of Valencia in Spain, took the winning photo while visiting the Tambopata National Reserve, a protected habitat in the Amazon.
The fungus that sprouts from the fly belongs to the genus ophiocordiceps, a diverse collection of parasitic fungi known as “zombie fungi”, due to their ability to infect insects and control their minds (Serial number: 7/17/19).
“Much remains to be discovered about the diversity of these fungi, as each infected insect species is likely to succumb to its own specialized fungus,” says Charissa de Bekker, an expert on parasitic fungi at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
First, the spores of the fungus land on the unlucky fly. Thus begins the manipulative endgame. The spores infiltrate the fly’s exoskeleton before infecting its body and eventually hijacking its mind. Once in control, the fungus uses its new powers of locomotion to move to a microclimate more suitable for its own growth, somewhere with the right temperature, light, and humidity.
The fungus and fly then bide their time until the fly dies, becoming a food source for the fungus to consume. The fruiting bodies burst from the fly, filled with spores that are released into the air to continue the macabre cycle on a new unsuspecting host. It is a “conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution,” García-Roa said in a statement announcing the winners.
Research into the molecular aspects of fungal mind control is ongoing, De Bekker says, including in his own lab. “These fungi harbor all sorts of bioactive chemicals that we have yet to characterize and that could have new pest control and medicinal applications.”