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  • Believe it or not, one of the world’s most coveted status symbols is a caterpillar with

  • a fungus growing out of its face.

  • I’m Anna, and this is Gross Science.

  • On the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, ghost moth caterpillars live underground,

  • keeping warm and eating plant roots til they turn into adult ghost moths.

  • That is, unless they get infected with the fungus Ophiocordyceps sinensis. The fungus

  • enters a caterpillar’s body in summer or autumn, and it starts to grow in threads through

  • the caterpillar’s organs, eating it from the inside out. Brainwashed by the fungus,

  • the caterpillar crawls upward until it’s just below the surface of the soil, where

  • it dies.

  • In the spring, a long, brown fungal stalk bursts from the caterpillar’s head. It pops

  • through the soil to send out its spores, which infect other caterpillarsand the circle

  • of life and parasitism continue.

  • Now, you might think that’s the end of the story, but people scour the meadows where

  • the fungus grows, hoping to harvest these infected corpses. Why? Well, a pound of the

  • fungus, called yartsa gunbu, can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. In fact, it’s

  • probably the most valuable fungus in the world. That’s because it’s used in traditional

  • Chinese and Tibetan medicine to slow aging, cure cancer, and treat all kinds of other

  • diseases. It’s even sold as an aphrodisiac.

  • The science is still out on whether eating yartsa gunbu actually does anything good for

  • your health. But, harvesting it is definitely bad for the fungus. It’s a huge status symbol

  • in China, and people have collected so much Ophiocordyceps sinensis that it’s now endangered

  • in some places.

  • And, this isn’t just a problem for the parasite, or for the people who eat it or brew it in

  • tea. Yartsa gunbu is a big part of the economy in places where it’s harvested, like Tibet

  • and Nepal. So, local communities are trying to figure out ways to sustainably harvest

  • the fungus. Because for them, this is one parasite that’s worth protecting.

  • I still feel kind of bad for the caterpillar though.

  • Ew.

Believe it or not, one of the world’s most coveted status symbols is a caterpillar with

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