Caterpillar Fungus: What is it?

Home quarantined due to the COVID-19 outbreak has left all of us bored and wondering what to do. Unable to travel I decided to watch some travel shows for recreation and this show named Himalayan Adventures caught my attention. In one of the episodes the Gahrwalis were digging deep under the soil to find what they called the caterpillar fungus. Hearing the word left me confused for a moment. Is it a caterpillar or a fungus? How does it look? What does it do?

Delving deeper, I found that Caterpillar fungus (Orphiocordyceps sinensis), is an entomopathogenic fungus, a fungus that grows on insects. It is mainly found in the Himalayan regions of Bhutan, Nepal, India and Tibet above 3500 metres and is world’s most valuable parasite. It germinates in the living larvae of ghost moths and kills and mummifies it. A dark stalk -like fruiting body emerges from the dead and mummified larvae and stands upright.

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You all must be thinking why such a parasite is so valuable. It left me amazed when I read that the fruiting body of the fungus is a herbal remedy and has a long history of being used in traditional Chinese medicine and Tibetan medicine. The remedies it offers are varied and include treatment of fatigue, hyperglycemia, renal failure, arrythmias and other heart diseases and liver disorders.

Its demand as herbal medicine has increased over the years and cost as high as $20000 a kilo. In Bhutan, one of the countries where the fungus is harvested, it accounts for a significant amount on their GDP.Hundreds of people of the Tibetan plateau harvest the fungus as their main source of income . But it has become a cause of concern as the fungus is slowly disappearing due to overharvesting and the global warming. Low temperature during the winters is essential for the fungus to grow through the body of their host and consume them.

If situations are not taken care of we might land up losing the most valuable fungus and most importantly hundreds will be losing their livelihood.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ophiocordyceps_sinensis#Use_in_traditional_Asian_medicines
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780128124918000692
  3. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/tibetan-caterpillar-fungus-trouble/573607/
  4. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20161125-the-worms-that-cost-20000-a-kilo

Photo: Google.


By Srobona Mahajan, Department of Biological Science, IISER Bhopal.

CaptureAbout the author: Srobona is a third year BS-MS student at IISER Bhopal, majoring in biological science. She takes interest in fields of chemistry, mythology and loves to learn different languages. Apart from studies, she has a knack for music and dance. She also loves to travel, is a foodie and spends her leisure time listening to music. Once in a while she likes writing original pieces on unique topics. This is her first blog for us, “The Qrius Rhino”.


 

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