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Behold this award-winning image of fungus making a fly its “zombie” slave

The story of a conquest: The fruiting body of a parasitic fungus erupts from the body of its victim.

Enlarge / The story of a conquest: The fruiting body of a parasitic fungus erupts from the body of its victim. (credit: Roberto García-Roa/CC BY 4.0)

The striking photograph above vividly captures the spores of a parasitic “zombie” fungus (Ophiocordyceps) as they sprout from the body of a host fly in exquisite detail. Small wonder it won the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution image competition, featured along with eight other honorees in the journal BMC Ecology and Evolution. The winning images were chosen by the journal editor and senior members of the journal’s editorial board. Per the journal, the competition “gives ecologists and evolutionary biologists the opportunity to use their creativity to celebrate their research and the intersection between art and science.”

Roberto García-Roa, an evolutionary biologist and conservation photographer affiliated with both the University of Valencia in Spain and Lund University in Sweden, snapped his award-winning photograph while trekking through a Peruvian jungle. The fungus in question belongs to the Cordyceps family. There are more than 400 different species of Cordyceps fungi, each targeting a particular species of insect, whether it be ants, dragonflies, cockroaches, aphids, or beetles. Consider Cordyceps an example of nature’s own population control mechanism to ensure that eco-balance is maintained.

According to García-Roa, Ophiocordyceps, like its zombifying relatives, infiltrates the host’s exoskeleton and brain via spores scattered in the air that attach to the host body. Once inside, the spores sprout long tendrils called mycelia that eventually reach into the brain and release chemicals that make the unfortunate host the fungi’s zombie slave. The chemicals compel the host to move to the most favorable location for the fungus to thrive and grow. The fungus slowly feeds on the host, sprouting new spores throughout the body as one final indignity.

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