Roberto Garca-Roa, a biologist and photographer, took the photograph while visiting the Peruvian Amazon.
A photograph can literally mean the difference between life and death — and zombies.
This haunting image, which won the BMC Ecology and Evolution photography competition in 2022, certainly fits the bill. In the Peruvian rainforest, it captures the fruiting bodies of a parasitic fungus emerging from the lifeless body of an infected fly.
The fungus-infested fly was one of many images submitted to the contest from around the world, with the goal of highlighting the beauty of the natural world as well as the challenges it faces. The winners were announced on August 18 by the journal.
The winning photograph was taken by Roberto Garca-Roa, a conservation photographer and evolutionary biologist at the University of Valencia in Spain while visiting the Tambopata National Reserve, a protected habitat in the Amazon.
The fungus that erupted from the fly belongs to the genus Ophiocordyceps, a diverse group of parasitic fungi known as “zombie fungi” because of their ability to infect and control insects’ minds (SN: 7/17/19).
“There is still much to learn about the diversity of these fungi because each insect species infected is likely to succumb to its own, specialized fungus,” says Charissa de Bekker, a parasitic fungi expert at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
First, fungus spores land on the unfortunate fly. So the endgame of manipulation begins. The spores enter the fly’s exoskeleton before infecting it and eventually taking over its mind. Once in command, the fungus uses its new locomotion abilities to relocate to a microclimate more conducive to its own growth — somewhere with the appropriate temperature, light, and moisture.
The fungus and the fly then wait until the fly dies and becomes a food source for the fungus to consume. Fruiting bodies emerge from the fly, containing spores that are released into the air to begin the macabre cycle in a new, unsuspecting host. It is a “conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution,” according to Garca-Roa, who announced the winners in a statement.
According to De Bekker, research into the molecular aspects of fungal mind control is underway, including in her own lab. “These fungi contain a wide range of bioactive chemicals that we have yet to characterize, but which could have novel medicinal and pest control applications.”
2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution image competition: the winning images, J. Harman et al. Ecology and Evolution (BMC). Online since August 18, 2022. doi: 10.1186/s12862-022-02049-y.