The world’s most valuable parasite makes a home for itself inside larval ghost moths, which it infects during the summer, while the caterpillars are underground. The body-snatching fungus will slowly eat away at its host over the coming months before sending its near-dead slave to the surface and spearing a fruiting body out of its head.
It’s a deadly duo that’s become known as yartsa gunbu in Tibet, or Dōng Chóng Xià Cǎo in China, which mean “winter worm, summer grass” in their respective languages. This is because to the humans topside, the fungus looks like earth-colored stalks shooting up from the ground. It’s a sight that they’ve become highly trained in identifying, as the Himalayan caterpillar fungus has become one of the most valuable biological commodities on Earth.
In China, it’s earned the nickname “soft gold,” with estimations for its value ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 per kilogram, up to as much as $140,000 for a particularly large specimen. As an Ophiocordyceps, it sits alongside the brain-controlling parasitic fungi that are known to turn ants and spiders into zombies, and became the stars of The Last Of Us.
Ophiocordyceps sinensis is, however, extra special, as it’s estimated to contain around 30 bioactivities, according to a 2013 paper: “Recently, the bioactivities of O. sinensis were described, and they include antiarteriosclerosis, antidepression, and antiosteoporosis activities, photoprotection, prevention and treatment of bowel injury, promotion of endurance capacity, and learning-memory improvement.”
It's been used for over 700 years as an ingredient in traditional medicine, and the O. sinensis market remains as strong as ever. Unfortunately, in recent years the fungus itself has become at risk from overexploitation, habitat degradation, and climate change.
Studies have found that Himalayan caterpillar fungus is more productive under colder conditions, preferring habitats that have permafrost for at least part of the year. While harvesting has largely been held accountable for its collapse, the research concluded that a warming climate is equally threatening to its survival.
The once plentiful fungus has decreased in recent years, which is bad news for humans and broader wildlife. As president of the Los Angeles Mycological Society, Stu Pickell, pointed out in regard to California’s impending mushroom superbloom, fungi are an important part of the ecosystem, and diminishing numbers means that many who have relied on the caterpillar fungus for income may struggle to make a living.
Don’t let the enormity of The Last Of Us' Bloaters fool you, sometimes even body-snatching fungus needs a helping hand.
[H/T: JSTOR Daily]