The striking photo above vividly shows traces of a parasitic “zombie” fungus (Ophiocordyceps) as they sprout from the body of a host fly in exquisite detail. No wonder it won the 2022 BMC Ecology and Evolution image contest, along with eight other winners in BMC Ecology and Evolution magazine. The winning images were chosen by the magazine editor and senior members of the magazine’s editorial board. According to the magazine, the competition “gives ecologists and evolutionary biologists the chance to use their creativity to celebrate their research and the intersection between art and science.”
Roberto García-Roa, an evolutionary biologist and wildlife photographer associated with both the University of Valencia in Spain and the University of Lund in Sweden, captured his award-winning photo while trekking through a Peruvian jungle. The fungus in question belongs to the cordyceps family. There are more than 400 different types cordyceps fungi, each targeting a particular species of insects, be it ants, dragonflies, cockroaches, aphids, or beetles. Consider cordyceps an example of nature’s own control mechanism to ensure that the eco-balance is maintained.
According to Garcia Roa, Ophiocordyceps, like its zombifying relatives, it infiltrates the host’s exoskeleton and brain via airborne spores that attach to the host’s body. Once inside, the spores sprout long tendrils called mycelia, which eventually reach into the brain and release chemicals that turn the hapless host into a zombie slave to the fungi. The chemicals force the host to move to the most favorable location for the fungus to thrive and grow. The fungus slowly feeds on the host, germinating new spores throughout the body as a final humiliation.
Those sprouts burst open, releasing even more spores into the air, which go out to infect even more unsuspecting hosts — what García-Roa calls “a conquest shaped by thousands of years of evolution.” Board member Christy Anna Hipsley praised García-Roa’s winning photo for its “depth and composition that depicts life and death simultaneously – an affair that transcends time, space and even species.” The death of the fly gives life to the fungus.”
The winners and runners-up in the individual categories are listed below.
Winner: Relationships in nature
This image of a Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) feasting on fermented rowan berries is the work of ecologist Alwin Hardenbol, a postdoc at the University of Eastern Finland. According to Hardenbol, the birds love the berries so much that they migrate to where the berries are most abundant — not just Finland, but western, eastern or central Europe as well. Waxwing birds can eat twice their own weight in rowan berries in one day. The birds get food and the berries can disperse their seeds.
“While this relationship is very beneficial for seed dispersal, it does not come at a cost to the birds,” Hardenbol said. “When the berries become overripe, they begin to ferment and produce ethanol that intoxicates Waxwings, sometimes leading to problems for the birds, even death. Unsurprisingly, Waxwings have evolved to have a relatively large liver to feed their birds. address unintentional alcoholism.”
Second place: relationships in nature
Alexander T. Baugh, a behavioral biologist at Swarthmore College, created this image of a hungry fringed bat (Trachops cirrhosis) feast on a male tungar frog (Physalalamus pustulousus) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. The bats’ hearing is fine-tuned to detect the frogs’ low-frequency mating call, pitting natural and sexual selection against each other. And should their frog-like prey turn out to be the poisonous variety, the bats’ salivary glands can neutralize the toxins in the skin.
Winner: Biodiversity under threat
Samantha Kreling of the University of Washington captured a trio of African elephants sheltering from the sun under a large baobab tree in Mapungubwe National Park, South Africa. The baobab tree has evolved to thrive in extremely arid climates by storing water in its trunk when drought hits. Elephants, in turn, can dig into those trunks to get water to drink.
The image shows visible traces where the elephants stripped the bark in search of precious water. Baobab trees have historically healed quickly from this type of damage, but climate change has led to more drought and the elephants have removed the bark faster than the trees can heal. The editors found that this image “highlights the need for action to prevent the permanent loss of these iconic trees.”