Award-winning photo captures mind-controlling ‘zombie’ fungus infecting fly

“The striking image of Roberto García-Roa looks like something out of science fiction.”

LONDON – The discovery of a mind-controlling ‘zombie’ fungus may not be something to celebrate – but a photo of it killing its insect victim gets cheers from the scientific community! The stunning photo won the second BMC Ecology and Evolution Image Contest, beating out a number of eye-catching nature scenes this year.

Roberto García-Roa from the University of Valencia captured the incredible image of a parasitic fungus emerging from the body of a fly. Researchers say that this particular fly-infecting fungus (genera Ophiocordyceps) actually takes over the body and mind of the victim. This forces them to move to places conducive to fungal growth before leaving the insect’s body to find and infect more victims.

“The image depicts a conquest that has been shaped by thousands of years of evolution. Spores of the so-called ‘zombie’ fungus have infiltrated the fly’s exoskeleton and mind and forced it to migrate to a place more favorable for the growth of the fungus. The fruiting bodies then burst from the body of the fly and will be released in order to infect more victims, “explains García-Roa in a Press release.

The story of a conquest. The fruiting body of a parasitic fungus sprouts from the body of its victim. Award: Roberto García-Roa

“The striking image of Roberto García-Roa looks like something out of science fiction. It illustrates life and death simultaneously, because the death of the fly gives life to the fungus,” adds Christy Anna Hipsley, Senior Editorial Board Member, who recommended the entry.

“Here they await death, at which time the fungus feeds on its host to produce spore-filled fruiting bodies that will be released to infect more victims – a conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution.”

Relationships in nature

In addition to the overall winner, judges selected winners and runners-up in four other categories: Relationships in Nature, Biodiversity Under Threat, Life Close Up, and Research in Action. The review’s authors say the winning photographs highlight the relationships between species, the details of life on Earth and the challenges it faces.

In the “Relations in nature” category, this year’s winner presented “a plant-fruit-eater relationship”, presented by Alwin Hardenbol. The photograph depicts a bohemian waxwing eating fermented mountain ash berries, demonstrating the close relationship between frugivorous plants and animals.

bird berries
Gone with the bay. Flying under the influence – a waxwing feasts on fermented mountain ash berries. Credit: Alwin Hardenbol

The second in the category describes the predator-prey relationship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

“This image illustrates how at odds natural and sexual selection can be. A male Túngara frog (Physalalamus pustulosus) makes a tasty meal for a hungry fringe-lipped bat (Trachops cirrhosis) who detected and located the frog by listening for the mating call,” explains behavioral biologist Alexander T. baugh.

bat eating frog
Trachops & Tungara. A bat locates its dinner by tuning into a frog’s broadcast to attract a mate. Award: Alexander T. Baugh

Biodiversity under threat

In the ‘Biodiversity at Risk’ category, Samantha Kreling of the University of Washington captured a winning image of African elephants sheltering from the sun under a tall baobab tree in South Africa during a drought.

“Baobabs can live for over 2,000 years and store water in their barrel-shaped trunks when water is scarce. The tree in this image was debarked by elephants in search of water. Although these trees generally heal quickly, this damage exceeds what the baobabs can withstand as temperatures rise due to climate change. This photograph highlights the need for action to prevent the permanent loss of these iconic trees.” says Kreling.

the elephants
The Baobab. The relationship between a group of African elephants and a baobab tree withers when drought hits. Credit: Samantha Kreling

Lindsey Swierk, assistant research professor at Binghamton University, submitted the second photo. This image captured the threat wood frogs face from climate change in the spring.

“I think it’s important to realize that the effects of key drivers of biodiversity change can also occur counterintuitively. In this case, due to global warming, there is an increased risk of frog offspring dying due to cold/frost (due to significant changes in phenology),” notes Josef Settele, senior member of the writing.

Wood frog under a frost. A false spring: climate change threatens the offspring of the wood frog. Credit: Lindsey Swierk

Close-up life

The winning image from “Life Close Up” featured slippery tree frog embryos developing in their eggs in Costa Rica.

“The eggs in this image are among those laid by thousands of soaring tree frogs during an explosive breeding event triggered by torrential rain. If left undisturbed, these eggs hatch after six days of development, but the embryos can hatch early in order to escape threats such as predators and flooding,” says Brandon André Güell of Boston University, who took the photo.

frog eggs
In ovum. The siblings of slippery tree frogs at an early stage of development. Credit: Brandon André Güell

Meanwhile, the second image in this category captured an anole lizard using a clever trick to breathe underwater.

“Water anoles (Anolis aquaticus) are small neotropical lizards that escape into the water when threatened by predators. They can spend nearly 20 minutes underwater, inhaling and exhaling an air bubble that clings to their muzzle. The oxygen in this bubble is depleted during scuba diving, which probably helps water anoles stay underwater for so long,” says Lindsey Swierk, who also took this image.

Breathing bubble in water Anoles. An anole lizard dives using a clever trick to breathe underwater. Credit: Lindsey Swierk

Research in action

Finally, the “Research in Action” winner, led by Jeferson Ribeiro Amaral of Cornell University, featured two researchers from the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The pair were working during the COVID-19 pandemic, researching whether isolated trees helped mitigate the impact of human activity on frog populations.

“The researchers in this image are representative of so many others who have continued to work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This image demonstrates their strength and dedication to understanding our world as they carry out their work despite thunderstorms and a global pandemic,” said Ribeiro Amaral.

covid tadpole
Field work with masks, rain and tadpoles. Researchers are studying the effect of isolated trees and land use on nutrient cycling by tadpoles during the COVD-19 pandemic. Credit: Jefferson Ribeiro Amaral

The second in this category featured Brandon A. Güell alongside thousands of soaring tree frogs and their newly laid eggs.

tree frogs
Focus amid chaos. PhD student Brandon A. Güell amidst thousands of breeding slippery tree frogs

All winners appear in the newspaper BMC Ecology and Evolution.