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Cordyceps Fungus

16th November 2015

When our Untamed Photographic leaders are free to roam the lush forest of the Amazon in the region of the Madre de Dios, they get to photograph objects out of the norm. When walking through the forest, we tend to get sighting of white blobs under and on leaves. Sometime these can be bird faeces and sometimes these can be the art of the Cordyceps fungus. This can be a great subject to photograph in our workshops and expeditions.

FACT: The Cordyceps fungus is an airborne genus of sac fungi that includes 400 different species of entomopathogenic fungi. All have specific individual host species. All Cordyceps species are parasitic mainly on insects and other arthropods. Others can be parasitic on other fungi. When the Cordyceps fungus attacks a host, the fungus mycelium replaces the host tissue, like other species of Cordyceps called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (formerly Cordyceps unilateralis) the fungus invades the brain of a host, insect. This type of infection causes insects such as ants to become disorientated and act in an unusual way. The hosts infected brain directs the insect upwards making it want to climb up to a raised part of the vegetation off the ground. This ensures the parasite’s environment is at an optimal temperature and humidity, and that maximal distribution of the spores from the fruit body that sprouts out of the dead insect is achieved.

After a time, the infected host begins to fuse to the surface of the leaf, vine or bark and where ventral shoots forces the insect to clamp tightly to the surface and die. Over time, small white shoots start to sprout out from the body and eventually envelop it completely. The fungal shoots come in many shapes and sizes depending on what species the host is. They can come in varying sizes and shapes of white bumps, white curly long sprouts, and star shapes for example. The host becomes a so called sustainable root on which the fungi grows.

When the fungal spores are fully grown, they arise released by the winds of the forest and nearby insects then get infected by the airborne process.

To photograph these natural works of art, we notice that to capture the shapes and fungal shoots in full clarity and focus, we start by focusing from the very front of the object and photograph every frame slowly working to the back. After about a good 30 shots, the images will then be put onto (Helicon Focus) a stacking program and the images will create a single image with a fully focused depth of field showing detail of this weird and wonderful macro world.

Story written by Mark Fernley