A species of fungus that has decimated bat populations around the world has been detected in the intestines of the famous mummy known as Ötzi. Discovered in 1991 in the mountains bordering Italy and Austria, the so-called Iceman is believed to have lived around 5,200 years ago and is the oldest natural mummy ever found in Europe.
Previous research has indicated that by the time he died at the age of about 45, Ötzi’s stomach was riddled with parasites and bacteria such as Helicobacter pylori. These microbes have been associated with stomach ulcers and can even cause stomach cancer, all of which suggesting that the Iceman probably suffered from some pretty severe belly pain.
Add a bunch of clogged arteries to the picture and life starts to look rather grim for the old boy. Depending on how you look at it, then, his murder by an unknown archer either adds to the misery or provides an end to a rather uncomfortable existence.
Peering deeper into Ötzi’s intestinal misfortunes, the authors of an as-yet un-peer-reviewed study have examined the fungal DNA present in the mummy’s gut. Among the most prevalent species detected in his stomach and small intestine was a pathogenic fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans.
A psychrophilic (cold-loving) fungus, the species is best known for causing the deadly white-nose syndrome (WNS) that has wiped out huge numbers of bats. According to the researchers, “Ötzi may have consumed these fungi accidentally, likely in association with other elements of his diet, and they thrived in his gut after his death due to their adaptability to harsh and cold environments.”
Indeed, the authors go on to explain that the species is capable of growing at temperatures of up to -20°C (-4°F), and that it could therefore have continued to proliferate in Ötzi’s innards as he lay frozen in a glacier for thousands of years. Exactly how the fungus might have affected his health is unknown, although the researchers say that the “opportunistic pathogen” can cause “infections in the skin and respiratory tract.”
According to the United States Geological Survey, there are no known cases of human illness caused by WNS, despite the fact that thousands of people have come into contact with infected bats. The risk that P. destructans would have posed to Ötzi is therefore unclear, although it’s worth noting that biologists wear protective clothing when entering bat caves known to harbor the fungus - just in case.
Unable to draw any firm conclusion regarding the significance of their findings, the study authors ultimately state that “the presence of Pseudogymnoascus in the gut of the Iceman presents a complex puzzle.” If nothing else, though, this discovery does at least contribute to our understanding of Ötzi’s surprisingly cosmopolitan intestines.
The study is currently available as a preprint on BioRxiv.