Deadly fungus that makes brains shrink found in Australia for first time

A deadly fungus, poison fire coral , has been found in Australia. Source: Ray Palmer (supplied).

One of the world’s most deadly types of fungus, known to cause people’s brains to shrink, has been found growing in Australia for the first time – despite it being native to Japan and Korea.

A photographer found the brightly-coloured Poison Fire Coral in the middle of a rainforest in Redlynch, a Cairns suburb in northern Australia. It has since been identified by James Cook University’s Dr Matt Barrett, who has warned Aussies to avoid touching it at all costs if any more is found in future.

The fungus, which is commonly found on tree roots and soil, is the only known toxic mushroom in which the toxins can be absorbed through the skin – and it has already been linked to fatalities in Japan and Korea, as people have mistaken it for edible fungus.

Some of the horrifying symptoms people will likely suffer – should they come in contact with it – include “delamination of skin on face, hands and feet”, and even shrinking of the brain. If left untreated, it can lead to multiple organ failure and even death.

“Just touching the Fire Coral fungus can cause dermatitis (reddening or swelling of the skin),” Barrett, a mycologist from the JCU Australian Tropical Herbarium (ATH), warned. “If eaten, it causes a horrifying array of symptoms: initially stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and numbness, followed over hours or days by delamination of skin on face, hands and feet, and shrinking of the brain, which, in turn, causes altered perception, motion difficulties and speech impediments.”

Barrett claimed, rather than this fungus being brought in to Australia, it’s likely it occurred naturally in Cairns. There have also been reported instances of it growing in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Encyclopedia Britannica lists the species as the world’s second deadliest fungus.

“If found, the fungus should not be touched, and definitely not eaten.” Barrett added. “This record extends the distribution of the fungus considerably, and it may be even more widespread in tropical Australia.”

The university explained that the deaths documented so far largely occurred when people in Japan and Korea mistook the fungus for the edible Ganoderma (Lingzhi or Reishi) or Cordyceps (vegetable caterpillar), which are used in traditional medicines. Photographer Palmer recalled making the discovery in an interview with The Guardian, saying he found it “in a little hidden area but close to suburbia”.

He added: “For anyone to find it they’d have to deliberately be looking for it.” Meanwhile, speaking to Adelaide Now, he added: “It was all around a very big, dying tree.

“I’d like to keep the exact locality secret, because it’s such a dangerous fungus. It’s in the wild, and it’s in a spot where even the ordinary bushwalker wouldn’t come across it. It’s a very hidden little area.”

And Barrett concluded: “The fact that we can find such a distinctive and medically important fungus like Poison Coral Fire Coral right in our backyard shows we have much to learn about fungi in northern Australia.”

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