Poison fire coral, a fungus that’s even nastier than its name suggests, has been spotted for the first time in Australia – the natural home for strange lifeforms that are out to kill you.
The highly poisonous fungus, armed with eight toxins that can be absorbed through the skin, was once assumed to be solely found in Japan and Korea. However, a mycologist at James Cook University in Queensland, Matt Barrett, has now confirmed that poison fire coral has reached Australia after studying photographs of the coral-colored fungi taken by photographer Ray Palmer in the forested suburbs of Cairns.
There’s no clear idea of how the fungus made it here from the Pacific coast of East Asia, although there have also been recent reports of it in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Nevertheless, this corner of Western Australia is often home to fungi that are not native to the continent. Dr Barrett notes that local people have found at least 20 fungi species that were not previously known to live in northern Queensland.
“We aren't sure [how it arrived in Australia] but we think it is a natural occurrence,” Dr Barrett told IFLScience.
“Fungi disperse by tiny wind-blown spores, so they can travel long distances. It probably dispersed into northern Australia thousands of years ago. There are not many people to look for fungi in northern Australia, so we think it has just been overlooked.”
Poison fire coral is regarded as one of the world’s most deadly species of fungus, not least because it’s the only known fungi to be equipped with toxic compounds that can be absorbed straight through the skin. If eaten, mistaken mushroom pickers suffer an even more unpleasant fate and it can prove fatal.
“Of the hundred or so toxic mushrooms that are known to researchers, this is the only one in which the toxins can be absorbed through the skin,” Dr Barrett said in a statement.
“Just touching the Fire Coral fungus can cause dermatitis (reddening or swelling of the skin). If eaten, it causes a horrifying array of symptoms: initially stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and numbness, followed over hours or days by delamination of skin on face, hands, and feet, and shrinking of the brain, which, in turn, causes altered perception, motion difficulties, and speech impediments,” he continued.
According to Japanese media, there have been a few instances in recent decades of people consuming the fungi by accident – and it rarely ends well. In 1999, a group of five people in Japan's Niigata Prefecture steeped the fungi in an alcoholic drink after mistaking it for a similar colored rare medicinal mushroom. At least one of them died and the others are presumed to have fallen very sick.
So, in case you haven't already guessed, you should resist its pretty colors and avoid even poking this deadly fungus.
“If found, the fungus should not be touched, and definitely not eaten," warned Barrett.