Award-winning photo captures ‘zombie’ fungus erupting from a fly

Biologist Roberto García-Roa took the photo while visiting the Amazon rainforest

A close-up of a 'zombie' fungus erupting from the body of a fly. The fungus has long, thin stalks ending in puffy 'heads'.

This winning image from the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution photography competition shows fruiting bodies of a “zombie” fungus that erupted from the body of a fly.

Roberto García-Roa

Sometimes a photo is literally a matter of life, death — and zombies.

This haunting image won the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution photo competition. It shows the “fruiting bodies” of a parasitic fungus. They’ve emerged from the lifeless body of an infected fly in the Peruvian rainforest.

The fungus-infested fly was one of many images submitted to the contest from all over the world. The pictures aimed to showcase the beauty of the natural world and the challenges it faces. The journal revealed the winners August 18.

Roberto García-Roa is a conservation photographer and evolutionary biologist. He works at the University of Valencia in Spain. He snapped the winning photo while visiting the Tambopata National Reserve. It’s a protected habitat in the Amazon.

The fungus it shows belongs to the genus Ophiocordyceps (OFF-ee-oh-kor-DY-seps). This is a diverse collection of parasites known as “zombie” fungi. They’re called zombies because of their ability to infect insects and control their minds.

The cycle starts when spores of the fungus land on the ill-fated fly. Those spores enter and infect the fly. Eventually they hijack its mind. Once in control, the fungus uses its new powers to move the fly somewhere with the right temperature, light and moisture.

When the fly dies, its body becomes a food source for the fungus. Fruiting bodies work their way out of the fly. Filled with spores, these structures release new spores into the air. This continues the cycle, soon infecting a new, unsuspecting host. It is a “conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution.” García-Roa said this in a statement announcing the winner.

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