Psychedelic fungi are as old as the dinosaurs, a new discovery indicates, and probably formed part of their diet. The revelation accompanies evidence that grasses are more ancient than previously thought, and may have co-evolved with dinosaurs.
Grasses (Poaceae) are such a dominant and apparently simple feature of the planet that it's easy to imagine that they are as old as life on land. However, until recently, evidence for their origins was sparse. The fossil record suggests that the great grasslands we know today only appeared relatively recently, after the development of C4 photosynthesis gave plants a huge evolutionary advantage.
However, in 2005, distinctive grass features were found in dinosaur droppings. This has now been extended, with the discovery of a grass floret trapped inside a 12 millimeter piece of amber from Myanmar. The amber has been dated to 97-110 million years ago.
Exciting as the grass discovery is to botanists, the find included something even more likely to catch public attention: Palaeoclaviceps parasiticus, an extinct fungus related to ergot.
Credit: Oregon State University. The grass floret with an extinct ergot fungus (dark) at the top.
The group of fungi species known as ergot produce the molecule ergotamine, closely related in structure and effects to lysergic acid, whose amide is LSD. The most famous member of the species, Claviceps purpurea, grows on rye and when bread goes moldy, produces hallucinogens.
At minimum the discovery proves that ergot dates back well into the dinosaur's era. While the find, to be reported in Palaeodiversity, does not prove dinosaurs ate ergot or were affected by its famous derivative, the previous discovery that dinosaurs were eating the grasses and passing them through their system makes it very likely that some were getting a dose of lysergic acid with their meals.
“It seems like ergot has been involved with animals and humans almost forever, and now we know that this fungus literally dates back to the earliest evolution of grasses,” says Emeritus Professor George Poinar of Oregon State University, whose work inspired Jurassic Park. “This is an important discovery that helps us understand the timeline of grass development, which now forms the basis of the human food supply in such crops as corn, rice or wheat,” Poinar said. “But it also shows that this parasitic fungus may have been around almost as long as the grasses themselves, as both a toxin and natural hallucinogen.”
Of course, what everyone wants to know is whether deliberately tripping dinosaurs stomped the Earth, providing their own beat to prehistoric raves. "There's no doubt in my mind that it would have been eaten by sauropod dinosaurs,” Poinar says. “Although we can't know what exact effect it had on them."
Herbivores generally avoid ergot, as a consequence of its bitter taste, and it may have evolved its alkaloids as a way to avoid being eaten. When cattle do consume it, they can suffer from “paspalum staggers.” However, it is also the base of numerous medicines.