A rare “zombie finger” parasitic fungus hangs (hardly) in Australia

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A fungus that resembles decaying human fingers is critically endangered but hangs for its life in Australia, wrapping its zombie-like fingers around fallen trees on an island near the continent’s south coast.

Hypocreopsis mplectens is commonly known as tea tree fingers because its shape resembles chubby human fingers clinging to wood on the forest floor, although the mushroom’s mottled pinkish-brown color and texture make these fingers look more dead than alive.

Tea tree fingers are extremely rare, found only in a handful of locations on mainland Victoria in southeastern Australia. But an expedition led by naturalists from Australia’s Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (RBGV) recently demonstrated that the fungus has increased its influence in at least two other locations in the Australian state.

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The mushroom’s fleshy appearance may be ghastly to humans, but it evolved into this bizarre shape to help it survive, said Michael Amor, postdoctoral fellow at RBGV and head of the mushroom hunting expedition.

“Since it’s found on dead, often separated, branches, the finger-like shape can help make it flexible enough to grow over curves / crevices and cope with bending, cracking, and falling,” Amor said in an e- Mail to Live Science.

The fungus is a parasite that grows on another mushroom host that decomposes wood. It’s also a tasty snack for moth larvae and other insects, “so it’s an example of the complex food webs that characterize intact ecosystems,” said Amor.

A team of researchers and volunteers reported finding tea tree fingers in two locations in a protected national park on the French island of Victoria. according to the RBGV statement. One of these locations is home to the largest recorded population of tea tree fingers – over 100 individual fruiting bodies, more than the total fungal population at any location on the mainland.

Finding so many examples of these dead-looking digits offers hope for the parasite’s future, as a warming climate and habitat loss will cause the fungus to lose its hold on the mainland, the statement said.

“Tea tree finger is a highly specialized fungus that needs certain conditions to grow. He needs certain tree species that are just the right density to provide ideal humidity and cover the canopy, ”Amor explained in the email. “To make these precise microclimates possible, large areas of natural vegetation are required, and unfortunately we are losing them at an alarming rate.”

Cupid used DNA Analysis to determine if habitat fragmentation and isolation of fungal populations has affected their genetic health. Other ecologists are studying the delicate balance of organisms in the fungus’s ecosystems to determine the conditions in which the fungus can thrive.

In the meantime, the dead-finger fungus just keeps doing what it does best: staying there.

Originally published on Live Science.



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