Tales of Conquest: Fruiting bodies of parasitic fungi erupt from victims' bodies.

Check out this award-winning image of a fungus that makes a fly its ‘zombie’ slave

enlarge / Tales of Conquest: Fruiting bodies of parasitic fungi erupt from victims’ bodies.

The striking photo above vividly captures the spores of a parasitic “zombie” fungus (Cordyceps) as they grow from the body of the host fly in fine detail. No wonder it won the 2022 BMC Ecology & Evolution Image Competition, joining eight other winners in the BMC Ecology & Evolution magazine. The winning images are selected by the journal editors and senior members of the journal editorial board. According to the journal, the competition “gives ecologists and evolutionary biologists the opportunity to use their creativity to celebrate their research and the intersection between art and science.”

Roberto García-Roa, an evolutionary biologist and conservation photographer at the University of Valencia in Spain and Lund University in Sweden, took this award-winning photo while walking through the Peruvian jungle.The fungus in question belongs to Cordyceps family.There are over 400 different Cordyceps Fungi, each targeting a specific species of insect, be it ants, dragonflies, cockroaches, aphids or beetles.consider Cordyceps An example of nature’s own population control mechanisms to ensure the maintenance of ecological balance.

According to Garcia-Roa, Cordyceps sinensis, Like its zombie relatives, it infiltrates the host’s exoskeleton and brain through air-dispersed spores attached to the host’s body. Once inside, the spores grow long tendrils called mycelium that eventually reach the brain and release chemicals that make the hapless host a zombie slave to the fungus. These chemicals force the host to move to the best location for the fungus to thrive. The fungus slowly feeds on its host, sprouting new spores all over its body, the final insult.

Those buds burst and release more spores into the air, which infect more unsuspecting hosts — what Garcia-Roa calls “a conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution.” Board member Christy Anna Hipsley praised García-Roa’s winning image as “a depth and composition that conveys both life and death at the same time – a vision that transcends time, space and even The event of the species. The death of the fly gives life to the fungus.”

The winners and runners-up for individual categories are as follows.

Winner: Relationships with Nature

Gone with the berries. Flying under the influence - a feast of pacific wings that feeds on fermented rowan berries.
enlarge / Gone with the berries. Flying under the influence – a feast of pacific wings that feeds on fermented rowan berries.

This image of a bohemian pacific bird (silkworm) enjoying fermented rowan berries is the work of Alwin Hardenbol, a postdoctoral ecologist at the University of Eastern Finland. According to Hardenbol, the birds love berries so much that they migrate to places where they are most abundant—not just Finland, but Western, Eastern or Central Europe. A Pacific bird can eat twice its own weight in rowan berries in a day. Birds get food, berries spread seeds.

However, “while this relationship is very beneficial for seed dispersal, it is not without costs for the birds,” Hardenbol said. “As the berries become overripe, they begin to ferment and produce ethanol, which intoxicates the wading bird and sometimes causes trouble and even death to the bird. Unsurprisingly, the wading bird has evolved relatively large livers to cope with their inadvertent alcoholism in China.”

Runner-up: Natural Relationships

Trajchops and Tungara. A bat locates its dinner to attract a mate by listening to a frog's radio.
enlarge / Trajchops and Tungara. A bat locates its dinner to attract a mate by listening to a frog’s radio.

Behavioral biologist Alexander T. Baugh of Swarthmore College snapped this photo of a hungry drool-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosis) feasting on male tungara frogs (meat floss) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Bats’ hearing has been fine-tuned to detect low-frequency mating calls in frogs, pitting natural and sexual selection against each other. If their frog prey turns out to be poisonous, bats’ salivary glands can neutralize the toxins in their skin.

Winner: Threatened biodiversity

Baobab tree. As the drought hits, tensions have grown between a herd of African elephants and a baobab tree.
enlarge / Baobab tree. As the drought hits, tensions have grown between a herd of African elephants and a baobab tree.

Samantha Kreling of the University of Washington captured three African elephants sheltering from the sun under a large baobab tree in South Africa’s Mapungubwe National Park. The baobab tree has evolved to thrive in extremely dry climates, storing water in its trunk whenever drought strikes. Elephants, in turn, can dig into these tree trunks to fetch water.

This image shows visible signs of elephants stripping bark in search of precious water. Baobabs have historically healed quickly from this damage, but climate change has brought more droughts and elephants are peeling bark faster than trees can heal. The editorial board believes the image “underscores the need for action to prevent the permanent disappearance of these iconic trees”.

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