Why is the world’s most expensive fungus disappearing?

Surveying local harvesters about the reasons caterpillar fungus populations are decreasing

Fungi are life forms that are essential to humans and
ecosystems. Recently, a parasitic fungus from the Tibetan
Plateau has been in the headlines. And its life cycle is nothing
short of strange.
Ghost moth caterpillars (Figure 1) spend years living
underground, eating plant roots in the summer and hibernating
for the rest of the year. Ophiocordyceps sinensis, the caterpillar
fungus, also lives underground, and it invades the caterpillars’
bodies with tiny spores. Once inside, this parasitic fungus eats
its host alive – from the inside out. The brainwashed caterpillar
crawls upward and dies slowly, ending up mummified right
below the earth’s surface. By late spring, the fungus grows out
of the caterpillar’s head, and a stalk pops up above the ground!
As if all this is not strange enough, local collectors dig up the
caterpillar-fungus corpses for medicinal purposes (Figure 2).
Caterpillar fungus has long been a part of traditional Asian
medicine. People believe the fungus promises energy,
stronger immunity, and even a cure for cancer. As the health
claims have become more widely known, global demand has
risen sharply. This increase in popularity has made the price
of the fungus go up. Nowadays, one kilogram of caterpillar
fungus can cost up to a shocking $140,000. This makes it
the most expensive fungus and one of the most valuable
biological niche commodities in the world.
The increased global demand has also led to more collecting
by local harvesters. Many people are concerned about
whether caterpillar fungus populations are declining. In this
study we wanted to find out whether this is actually the case
and if so, why?
Meet the world’s most wanted parasite: a mummified
caterpillar with a fungus growing right out of its face. Even
stranger: it costs three times its weight in gold! This super
expensive fungus grows in the alpine regions of the Himalayas
and Tibetan Plateau where it is cold and dry. Its promised
health benefits include increased strength and cures for many
diseases. Recently, it has become very popular around the
world. Its price has increased and collectors have started
harvesting more. But lately, some people have become
concerned that the fungus populations are declining. We
wanted to see if that is the case, and if so, why? So, we
interviewed local harvesters and analyzed environmental
models of the region. Our results showed that there is a
decline in the caterpillar fungus populations, and the main
causes are overharvesting and climate change.

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