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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

Zombie Leaf Hoppers and Kill Posts

I had the fabulous Emma Williams from Coal Spoil Fungi (@coalspoilfungi on Twitter and Instagram) and Rob Parry from INCC (www.natureconservation.wales ) over last weekend. Emma was conducting a survey of the fungi we have a Cefn Garthenor to give a bit of a base line and also to suggest things we might do differently to encourage more. Fungi are fundamental to soil health, plant life and much, much more all the way up the food chain. I’ll come back to that when I get Emma’s report but, in the meantime, there are a couple of tiny snippets which made my weekend.


The great thing about having a walk around with someone like Emma is the little asides you get from someone who really knows their stuff and is also super excited about nature. I was essentially the bag carrier soaking up all I could. She is big on the detailed hand search, literally down on her hands and knees, peering through grasses and under bark, finding things I would never find. We took well over 100 samples from our two days of surveying, taking in what we thought would be the most productive areas (say 10 fields / woodland areas out of our 60 odd). Some were reviewed using a digital microscope over tea or after it got too dark to collect more, some tested in the field while the rest will be done in Emma’s office.

L to R: Emma conducting hand search, some of samples collected, viewing on digital microscope

But what really grabbed my attention? Well, I’ve been reading Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (well worth a read) and was fascinated by the way fungi can invade an ant and totally change its behaviour (getting it to climb a plant, bite a particular part of a leaf and then hang on until it dies, all with a 98% success rate) so it can offload its spores. But that was in the Amazon, where everything is bigger and better (although sadly disappearing just like here). Not quite the same, but Emma found me a Leaf Hopper that had been invaded by a fungi (Beauveria Bassiani) for the same purpose … to feed and reproduce. Toxins from the fungi also “induce a range of symptoms in the host insect, including severe dehydration, abnormal behavior, lack of coordination, convulsions, hindered feeding, and metabolic disorders that eventually cause insect death (Chu et al., 2017)” (source: Frontiers | The Toxins of Beauveria bassiana and the Strategies to Improve Their Virulence to Insects (frontiersin.org) ). You can see the fungi growing through the exoskeleton of this tiny creature. Zombie Leaf Hoppers, here in Wales!

A Leaf Hopper invaded by Beauveria Bassiana, a pathogenic fungi

If you are anything like me, you’ll be thinking “hmmm insects for now, but could fungi move on to invading and controlling humans?!” Afterall, we know that they can produce mind altering chemicals. Good news on this front for the time being, as it turns out that our mammalian body temperature is a little too warm for fungi comfort. But lest you start to feel too comfortable, Emma pointed out that they might adapt with global warming … and suggested I watched the Zombie movie based on this premise, The Girl with All the Gifts (2016 film directed by Colm McCarthy, based on the 2014 novel of the same title by M.R.Carey).


Next? The kill post. Clearly a theme here. Death rather than fungi, as this one was nothing to do with our survey. Emma was checking out fungi on a branch and pointed out one particular section to me. The moss was matted with small feathers and a few other bits and pieces. I would never have noticed it, but it was a kill post. Essentially a branch, offering a clear view of an expanse of open ground with easy access, where a bird of prey, possibly a buzzard, came to dismember its prey.

Kill Post: perch used by bird of prey to dismember prey, feathers left on most

Nice. I’ll end with a couple of less gory images … perhaps more what we all think of when we think fungi. I’ll do another blog on the fungi we have and how we might encourage more when Emma’s report lands. Interesting to note that a fungi survey on the 27/28 November is pretty late, but this year the whole season has been pushed back by the weather.

Left: Amethyst Deceiver, Right: Common Bonnet

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