Observation of the Week, 3/9/16

This Zombie Ant Fungus seen by jonathan_kolby in Cusuco National Park, Honduras is our Observation of the Week.

“I was walking down the trail, in pursuit of a frog, when this alien-like creature suddenly grabbed my attention out of the corner of my eye,” says National Geographic Explorer Jonathan Kolby. “This was the first time I had ever seen cordyceps fungus and didn’t know what it was at the time.” What he photographed (identified by Prof. David Hughes of Penn State), is likely the incredible fungus known as the Zombie Ant Fungus, which parasitizes its insect host and basically controls its brain. The host is often compelled to climb up the stem of a plant and uses its mandibles to latch onto it (known as the “death grip”). Fruiting bodies of the fungus eventually grow out of the host and release spores back into the forest. “After seeing this in person, I don’t think anyone would argue that nature is more amazing than the best sci-fi movie,” he says. “I now keep my eyes peeled every time I return to the forest to see if I can find another zombie insect! Just a few weeks ago, I found another one, this time of a moth (see below).”

(By the way, the BBC has incredible footage of an ant afflicted by Zombie Ant Fungus, you should definitely check it out.)

It is, however, another fungus which brings Jonathan to the rainforests of Honduras - Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, commonly known as chytrid. It and the newly discovered B. salamandrivorans cause the disease chytridiomycosis, which is devastating amphibian populations around the world. The fungus does its damage by affecting the keratin-producing layer of skin in amphibians, disrupting electrolyte balance and chemical flow, “and ultimately kills the amphibian by causing a little froggy heart attack,” says Jonathan. For the past 10 years, Jonathan has specifically been working to combat the global amphibian extinction crisis and recently established the Honduras Amphibian Research & Conservation Center (http://www.FrogRescue.com), where they are working to protect three endangered species of frogs from chytrid. He’ll be finishing up his PhD at James Cook University in Australia and “now wants to help develop policies to protect biodiversity from emerging infectious diseases, reduce the spread of invasive species, and combat the illegal wildlife trade.” 

Believing  that photography and social media are important for raising awareness about these issues, Jonathan is active on many social media outlets (see below) one of which is iNaturalist. In addition to adding his own observations, he created an iNaturalist Project called Saving Salamanders with Citizen Science, where he’s asking folks to upload any photos they have of dead salamanders. “A new chytrid fungus disease [B. salamandrivorans] is beginning to spread around the world killing salamanders and we’re having a hard time tracking where it’s going,” he says. “With so many people outside looking at nature, anyone who snaps a picture of a dead salamander can provide valuable scientific data that might help us pinpoint where an outbreak is happening, so we can respond as quickly and efficiently as possible.” He invites anyone who’s interested in the issue to join, as he’ll be providing updates via the project; “iNaturalist has provided me with a way to communicate this message and raise awareness with a large audience of people who want to help protect nature.”

- by Tony Iwane


- You can follow Jonathan on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, and check out his photos on SmugMug. Proceeds from SmugMug sales go to supporting his frog rescue operation at the Honduras Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Center.

- Here are links to two other cordyceps observations Jonathan has uploaded.

- Cordyceps fungus have even inspired video games! The acclaimed survival horror video game The Last of Us posits a world where a mutant strain of cordyceps affects humans, turning them into cannibalistic monsters. 

Posted by tiwane tiwane, March 09, 2016 16:43

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