Nature is always intriguing, often beautiful, but occasionally it is rather creepy and somewhat gruesome.
We found this little insect body under a tree on the Natural Heritage Trail at the South Carolina Botanical Garden. We’d never seen anything like it before and couldn’t figure out what it might be. Luckily, we have connections in the Entomology Department. Mike Ferro, the collections manager of the Clemson University Arthropod Museum, excitedly informed us it was a grasshopper infected with a Cordyceps fungus.
I’d never heard of such a thing, so I started investigating. I learned that Cordyceps is a parasitic fungus; its hosts are insects and arthropods. The spores from a fruiting fungus body infect the insect as it passes by. The mycelium (branching, thread-like structures) grows inside the body, ultimately killing the host. The forms we see here sprouting from the grasshopper are the fruiting bodies of the fungus preparing to start the cycle again.
There are several hundred species of this fungus, many concentrated in the humid regions of the world. One of the most infamous is Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the “zombie-ant” fungus of the tropics. Once the ant is infected, the fungus hijacks its body and mind. The ant is forced to climb a stem to the perfect height for the fungus to develop. Once there, it bites the plant stem and is immobilized until death. The fungus’ fruiting body sprouts from the back of the ant’s head and showers spores on the ground below, ready for another victim.
The same week we discovered this infected grasshopper, I found cordyceps powder for sale in a local store to add to smoothies and other food preparations! Again, this new discovery led me down another exciting path into the natural world. I discovered that this Cordyceps species is harvested in Tibet from an infected caterpillar and has been used for hundreds of years in traditional Chinese medicine. Today, this has become a multi-million-dollar industry as some celebrities vigorously promote its use as a health food. Of course, this high demand has led to scarcity and high prices.
What a fantastic journey this one small find has taken us on: from the forests of South Carolina to the tropics and the Himalayas. Nature is truly wonderful!