Flies, Fungus, and Zombies—oh my!

The winner of the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution photography competition encompasses things only Mother Nature and horror writers could come up.

This nightmare-inspiring photograph captures the fruiting body of a “zombie” parasitic fungus, emerging from the dead castoff body of an infected fly.
The shot was taken in a Peruvian forest at the Tambopata Natural Reserve, a protected habitat in the Amazon—and possible start of the zombie apocalypse (but hey, that could just be me worrying 😉 )

The winner of this competition and the photographer behind this oh-so-creepy shot, is Roberto García-Roa, a conservation photographer and evolutionary biologist at the University of Valencia in Spain.

The contest aimed to showcase the beauty of the natural world and the challenges it faces, and how life works with (or on) other life for survival. And in this case: the “zombie” fungus begins as spores that land on it’s ill-fated victim (in this case a fly—buzzz), then spores infiltrate the fly’s exoskeleton before infecting its body and eventually hijacking its mind. Once in control, the fungus uses its new powers of bodily control to relocate its zombie fly to a place with just the right temperature, light and moisture; a microclimate more suitable to its own growth.

Then, as if all that wasn’t rough enough to digest, the fungus bides its time until the fly dies, becoming a food source for the fungus to consume, and the fruiting bodies (seen in the picture) work their way out of the fly, [which is] filled with spores that are released into the air to continue the macabre cycle all over again, in a new, unsuspecting host.

The photographer, García-Roa, said in a statement announcing the winners, that this is a, “conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution.”

Charissa de Bekker, an expert in parasitic fungi at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says that, “Research into the molecular aspects of fungal mind control is under way”—including in her own lab, and that—“These fungi harbor all sorts of bioactive chemicals that we have yet to characterize and that could have novel medicinal and pest control applications.”

You gotta scratch your chin and wonder if that’s the only applications they’ll be testing. Best to be on the safe side and start studying up on how to survive the next zombie apocalypse!

**To check out all the winning images, check out the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution image competition online HERE.**