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Fungi Study 2 – The Last of Us Cordyceps

Fungi Study: The Last of Us

Basis in Reality

As teased in the last post, I have been continuing my fungi study, and this time I am actually tying it back to something nerdy … and totally creepy. Today we are looking at cordyceps.

Imagine breathing in spores and having something has taken root in your nervous system. Soon your body is no longer your own. You begin to act erratically and experiences convulsions. Your nervous system is hijacked, and you go where the parasite wants you to go in order to find optimal growing conditions. You as the host will probably die in this location of natural causes such as dehydration. Meanwhile, the parasitic fungus grows within your brain and will begin to sprout from your head as it matures. It is in this stage the fungus begins to release its spores in order to infect more individuals, and the cycle begins again.

cordy

Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a species of cordyceps that specifically affects ants in rainforest and subtropical climates, and is one of the more well-known varieties. There are over 300 other varieties of cordyceps which are also parasitic. Each type affects its own niche species of insects and other invertebrates, such as shellfish, and some even feed off other species of fungi.

Cordyceps are also widely used in traditional Chinese remedies, and even a few modern medicines. Some varieties are useful for treating coughs, bronchitis and other respiratory issues. Some people also believe that cordyceps supplements will increase vitality, improve performance in high intensity sports, and help increase virility in men.

The Game

The-Last-of-Us1

By now we are all familiar with the hit game from Naughty Dog, The Last of Us. For those of you who have not played the game … go do it right now. I am serious, step away from the computer, go buy the game, and play. Then, come back and continue to read this post. I will wait …

Done? Cool. This article won’t have any major plot spoilers, but The Last of Us is a game everyone should play at least once. Plus, I wouldn’t want to spoil the joy of discovering how unfortunate it is when you have to clear a room full of clickers.

In a world where the media is now so saturated with zombie TV shows, movies and games, it is hard to think of a new or original spin on the concept. Each franchise has its own version of the zombie virus and its origins, but as far as I know The Last of Us is the only zombie story featuring parasitic fungus.

This game is A) amazingly animated and B) heavily story driven in a way that is second only to giants like Bioware. All of that aside, today we are just here to talk about the morphology of the zombies.

The universe of The Last of Us a new species of cordyceps has entered the field, and its host of choice is the human brain. This variety of cordyceps transmits via both the traditional zombie bite, as well as by spores in the advanced stages. The introduction of spores by itself makes this new species of zombie incredibly dangerous because the disease has the potential to be airborne. Depending on the placement of the corpse, a single cordycep infested zombie could potentially infect dozens more humans at the end of its life cycle than when it was moving around trying to feed.

last-of-us-01

Within a few short days after infection a victim of the fungal spores will begin to exhibit the same symptoms as the ants mentioned above. Twitching, convulsions and erratic behavior are signature of a cordycep infection. It is also highly likely that, in humans, a drastic spike in body temperature would occur as the body tries to fight off the foreign invader. High fevers may contribute to the unpredictable behavior and screaming, especially in the early stages when they are classified as “runners”.

Clicker

According to the Last of Us Wiki, it takes between 1-2 weeks for the fungal infection to go into the next stage of development.  Since the human skull is a little tougher to break through than the exoskeleton of an insect, the stocks of the fungi begin to grow out of the eyes. Eventually the host loses all vision and must use a form of echo location in order to move around its environment. At this stage they are called “clickers” or “the bane of my existence”.

It is stated that in this advanced stage of infection clickers possess higher strength, speed and durability than the earlier stages. This is potentially a nod to the real life cordycep use in old Chinese medicine to increase stamina and virility.

Bloater

In insects, the late stages of infection include the stroma (the stalks/tops) of the fungus growing out through the head, and other points of weakness such as the joints. Human bodies are far more … malleable, which results in the final stage called “bloaters”. As the fungus matures the body expands and the fungus begins to produce mycotoxin. Mycotoxin is a natural defense mechanism specific to fungi, and is toxic if ingested by humans. While mycotoxin is not necessarily found in cordyceps, points to the creators for keeping it in the fungi family.

After looking through the stages of development, and observing the different types of stroma, the fungal infection of this universe appears to be a combination of at least two or more real-world species. The fungi ability to produce toxins also suggests traits from other fungi families. Mycotoxin is commonly found in mold which grows on foods such as corn, which is in line with the game’s suggestion that the infection started out growing in crops.

All in all, what we have here in the world of The Last of Us is a near perfect parasite. Just think about the scope if this infection. It is a fungus that feeds on the human brain, rendering all forms of logic and higher cognitive function inactive, and a single infected individual can infect an entire crowd of people once it begins to produce spores. In its infancy, this species of cordyceps can survive and thrive on crops such as corn and wheat, which increases the rate of infection exponentially. Could this new deadly species of fungus have been manufactured as a biological weapon…? Given the evidence and the sheer efficiency of infection it seems to be a likely scenario. Maybe I will revisit that thought in a later article, or maybe I will leave that to the Game Theorists.

For a completely fictionalized species of corcyceps, the game developers did their research, and the result is a completely unique take on zombies in a time where the trope has grown tired. If it is not clear by this point, I 100% recommend this game, not only for the zombies … ok maybe mostly for the zombies … but for the real tug it will give your heart strings as well.

Well, now that I have finally finished I definitely need to go play Last of Us now. Survival mode anyone?

All my information for the game and medical research references are listed in the links below!

LINKS:
Cordyceps Wiki Page - LINK
Web MD - LINK
Last of Us/Naughty Dog - LINK
Last of Us WIKI - LINK

Cheers,

Starchip13

Fungi Study

Creating a Scene

This week I have been thinking about fungi, and how they might be used to create a scene.

Crafting an environment is an acquired skill like any other. A creature crafted from imagination needs a home in which to dwell. Forests are lush places full of life even in the darkest, dampest, corners. Here thrive the things that crawl and the things that survive on the decay of other living things.

Fungi are nature’s natural composters, and as such they are associated with rot and all things dead. Given the environments where fungi tends to thrive, it is small wonder that mushrooms are lumped in with witches and frightening bogs.

Over the past couple of days I have been staring long and hard at interesting plants that would give a environment personality. Of course, it helps to know a little bit of information on your chosen subject matter. I have decided to gather some interesting facts about the species I have illustrated here. All of my sources are listed at the bottom of this post for those of you who want to continue their fungi journey.

Let us Begin..

four-fungi
Fungi Study (watercolor & gauche)

Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric)

If we look to the bottom right of the illustration above you will see a familiar species. The Fly Agaric is probably the most iconic of all the fungi species. This species was made famous by popular media such as Smurfs and Super Mario Bros, and is the type of mushroom most commonly depicted in children’s books.

Fly Agaric got its name from its use an a natural insecticide. The mushroom was crushed up and added to milk, which would attract flies and subsequently poison them. Fly Agaric is also mildly toxic to humans. Ingesting this mushroom can cause sweating, mild hallucinations, and (in very rare cases) death.

Fly Agaric is a common, wide spread, fungi. It thrives in north-temperate regions of most major continents. This species grows closely around trees and forms a relationship with the roots. It’s preferred species of tree are birch and pine.

Hydnellum Peckii (Bleeding Tooth Fungus)

Bottom left. Also known as Strawberries and Cream, Bleeding Hydnellum, Red-Juice Tooth or Devil’s Tooth. This species is found mainly in North America and Europe. This mushroom producing fungi forms a mutually beneficial relationship with coniferous trees.

The cap of the mushroom contains fruit bodies which ooze a bright red liquid when young. This give’s the distinct look of a bleeding mushroom. I’m uncertain whether or not this looks incredibly pretty, or like something out of a horror film…

Armillaria (Honey Fungus)

This species is depicted by the illustration on the top right, and the top left. Honey Fungus is actually a name given to a family of fungus Armillaria, which share common traits, which is why this variety is depicted in two separate illustrations.

These are common mushroom and fungus that are considered pests. They feed mainly on woody perennials such as trees and shrubs. Infected plants will begin to wilt and fail to flower, and the mushroom caps most commonly appear in autumn. There are no fungicides available to honey fungus. The only treatment is to remove infected plants, dig up surrounding area, and take steps to prevent the spread.

orange_fungi
Red Cage Fungus in Watercolor
Clathrus Ruber (Red Cage Fungus)

Red cage fungus got its name from the distinct lattice-like structure of the fungi fruit body. This species starts out its life cycle as a round white egg looking structure. It gradually breaks out and expands upwards into this distinct shape as it matures. This species can grow up to about 20 cm tall.

The lattice structure of Rage Cage ranges from light pink to dark orange-red in colour. The larger spongy structure surrounds the cluster of spores on the inside which are dark green in colour.

Red Cage fungi are also known by another name, Stinkhorn. This is due to the fact that the spores of this fungi release an odor similar to that of rotting meat in order to attract flies. The odor combined with the bright colour of the lattice structure is enough to deter most animals that might eat this fungi.

Red cage thrives in decaying woody plant material. It can be found growing in North Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

pink-fungi

Clathrus Archeri (Devil’s Finger)

Last but not least, we have Devil’s Finger Fungus. This particular species is making a big splash on the internet due to its striking resemblance to xenomorph eggs (Alien 1979).

Devil’s finger starts out its life cycle resembling a semi-translucent glutenous egg structure. As it matures four to eight long tentacle-like structures push out through the membrane. If you have the stomach for it, I highly suggest looking up pictures of growing Devil’s Finger. It is truly the stuff of nightmares.

Devil’s FInger is actually related to the Red Cage (or Stinkhorn) fungus. The tentacle-like structures are made of a similar spongy material which releases a strong odor which attracts flies in order to spread its spores. It also grows in similar habitats of wood chips and decaying woody plants. They often grow together in clusters. Freaky!

While Devil’s finger is quite an usual, and even a little frightening, it is actually quite harmless. Its spores are even served as a delicacy in some parts of the world.

Coming Up Next…

Next time in Twisted Tales Studio, we are going to take an up close and personal look at a particularly freaky fungi, which can technically be classified as a parasite. This fungus’s life cycle is so unusually frightening that a well-known video game actually used it as a basis for their big bad monsters. After all, the scariest monsters have their roots in reality.

Can anyone guess which game I am talking about??

Once again, all of my information above can be found in the links listed below! I am by no means an expert on species of fungi, so please check out these sites for more information.

Sources:
Fly Agaric - Link
Bleeding Tooth Fungus - Link
Honey Fungus - Link
Red Cage Fungus - Link
Devil's Finger Fungus - Link

Cheers,

Starchip13