Alien Fungi: The deadly fungi with a harmless look
Zhao Ying

Do you know one mushroom genus accounts for nearly 95 percent of all fungal poisonings? The big family of Amanita genus has around 600 species, some of which are among the most deadly fungi in the world. 

Death cap, Amanita phalloides, is a member of the genus, notorious for its toxicity. It was believed that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died after eating food cooked with death caps in the 18th century.

Unlike the poisonous fly agaric that has a distinctive appearance in the woods, death caps look harmless. The caps are pale green to yellow in color with white gills. In fall and early winter, they often grow alongside edible fungi, making it more challenging to distinguish.

Death caps among fallen leaves. /VCG Photo

Death caps among fallen leaves. /VCG Photo

According to people who were poisoned, death caps smell like honey and taste very delicious when cooked with other food. However, one death cap is enough to kill a healthy adult. Cooking or peeling won't make the death caps any safer to eat. 

The toxins in death caps are mainly amatoxins and phallotoxins, which are in all parts of the mushroom. About 60 percent of the amatoxins would go directly to the liver and the rest to the kidneys. 

After eating death caps, people usually won't have symptoms like nausea, headache and vomiting for eight to 48 hours, which makes it hard to detect. Organ failure often occurs four to 12 days after ingestion. The emperor Charles VI was said to die ten days after eating the mushrooms.

Death caps of various sizes. /VCG Photo

Death caps of various sizes. /VCG Photo

The death cap is a global citizen, and now grows on every continent except Antarctica. The secret of its wide distribution lies in humans. When people tried to plant trees in new continents in the 19th century, they found seedlings could only grow in their native soil by putting them in pots. The fungal spores were thus spread to more places.   

The death caps develop a cooperative relationship with trees like many mushrooms. They can form a network in the soil, called a mycelium, that can help trees better absorb nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. In return, the trees provide sugars for death caps.

For human beings, death caps are the invitation of death. In nature, they are an inseparable part of trees.

Two acorns on one death cap. /VCG Photo

Two acorns on one death cap. /VCG Photo

Alien Fungi

What is the most ancient land-based life after the bacteria? Fungi! As an industrious decomposer in the natural world, fungi have existed for almost a billion years, at least 500 million years older than the first land plants. In the series "Alien Fungi," CGTN will explore some peculiar-looking fungi with alien features and see how they enjoy their eternal, cryptic lives on damp floors, decaying wood and hidden areas.

Read more:

Fly agaric: The mushroom that inspired 'Alice in Wonderland' creators

Bioluminescent fungi: The mushrooms that glow in the dark

Bridal veil stinkhorn: A girlish mushroom that loves to wear 'skirt'

Bird's nest fungi: Dandelion-like drifting life

Barometer Earthstar: The fallen star praying for moisture

(Cover image via VCG)

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