Deep in the recesses of the Academy lurk the specimens of a very particular, silent foe — for insects, that is. Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps are members of a group of parasitic fungi with otherworldly growth traits that have long been the inspiration for science fiction, now popularized across the nation.
This type of fungus is ubiquitous; it is found all over the world, usually in the forest understories of warm tropical climates. There are thousands of different species of entomopathogenic fungi — species that attack living insects as their hosts. They float around in their spore stage, and most have generally evolved alongside the insects that are available within their environment, creating hosts out of ants, caterpillars and many unsuspecting others.
Entomology Collection Manager Jason Weintraub, who found some celebrity specimens both within our Entomology Collection and our Fungi Herbarium, has also seen these fungi in real life on research visits to the rainforests of Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Already well-known to scientists as the go-to places for studying incredible biodiversity, these equatorial biomes are home to the majority of the world’s insect species. So, of course, they are also the no-brainer hotspots for the fungi that parasitize them!
In the insect Order Hymenoptera, which includes bees, ants and wasps, this particular ant (Dinoponera gigantea) is widespread in South America and a relative of the infamous “bullet ant” — in other words, you do not want to be stung by these little workers. It’s horrible venom, however, is no match for the fungus’s deadly and invasive mycelium.
The long, stalk-like fruiting bodies of the fungus (Ophicordyceps robertsii) actually take weeks to months to fully sprout out of the infected host’s head or body before its final burst into a plume of spores, to begin the growth cycle once more.
And what about us? Weintraub says not to worry. “These fungi are ancient, with a fossil record dating back to the Cretaceous. They’ve been attacking and infesting insects for a very long time.” Host–parasite evolution of this kind would take millions of years and a lot of trial and error before it could infect our civilization and cause the collapse of human society.