An award-winning photo captures a ‘zombie’ fungus erupting from a fly

Sometimes a photo is literally a matter of life, death — and zombies.

This haunting image, winner of the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution photography competition, certainly fits that description. It captures the fruiting bodies of a parasitic fungus, emerging from the lifeless body of an infected fly in the Peruvian rainforest.

The fungus-infested fly was one of many images submitted to the contest from all over the world, aiming to showcase the beauty of the natural world and the challenges it faces. The journal revealed the winners August 18.

Roberto García-Roa, a conservation 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 erupting from the fly belongs to the genus Ophiocordyceps, a diverse collection of parasitic fungi known as “zombie fungi,” due to their ability to infect insects and control their minds (SN: 7/17/19).

“There is still much to unravel about the diversity of these fungi as it is likely that each insect species infected succumbs to its own, specialized fungus,” says Charissa de Bekker, an expert in parasitic fungi at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

First, spores of the fungus land on the ill-fated fly. So 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 relocate to a microclimate more suitable to its own growth — somewhere with the right temperature, light and moisture.

Fungus and fly then bide their time until the fly dies, becoming a food source for the fungus to consume. Fruiting bodies work their way out of the fly, filled with spores that are released into the air to continue the macabre cycle in 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 under way, De Bekker says, including in her own lab. “These fungi harbor all sorts of bioactive chemicals that we have yet to characterize and that could have novel medicinal and pest control applications.”

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