Zombie Caterpillars

I have to admit, there’s nothing like finding a scientific paper on zombies, mummification, and, er, caterpillars to put me in the Halloween mood. It’s got it all: mind-controlled caterpillars who submit to their fate, controlled by a monster that isn’t even sentient. Then, the mindless monster sparks wars, is used to cheat in races, and scientists are trying their very best to grow it in the lab, only to be stymied. Whew…


I’m not exaggerating. There really is a fungus that can control a caterpillar and force it to do it’s will, which is mostly to get the fungus in the right position to reproduce, then the fungus eats it’s gracious host-transporter before sending up fruiting bodies (which look little like the toadstool of fairy tales, and more like dead man’s fingers, appropriately enough). Those fungal bodies are so highly sought after as a source of ‘medicine’ that wars have erupted over control of territories where they grow. High in the cold mountains of Tibet, these zombie caterpillars can be found… and if that doesn’t sound like something straight out of a gothic 1800’s novel I need to introduce you to some Lovecraft.

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha) an unrelated species of fungus, but similar morphology. Photo taken in my backyard this spring.


It gets even better: the mushroom is claimed to boost energy, and testosterone levels. It was once considered part of the elixir of immortality (well, close enough, anyway) and now in the modern era it’s used to dope runners and boost libido. Sounds like a great drug for a supervillain and his minions, no? However, attempts to grow it under lab conditions have – so far! – failed. Mysterious and elusive, the zombie fungus still lurks in the high mountains, preying on hapless caterpillars.

But what a story! You couldn’t get away with this in fiction, without readers snortling and suggesting you watch fewer B Horror flicks. I mean, this is a great way to write a realistic zombie story, isn’t it? Scientists working in a lab to grow fungus make a horrible genetic engineering mistake and suddenly… Zombies! With fungus growing out of their heads. ewwwwww….


2 responses to “Zombie Caterpillars”

  1. Are you sure you couldn’t get away with this in fiction? Hmm… sounds like a dare.

    1. Well, I wrote a short about zombie maggots, so totally!