Monster of the Week: The Mushrooms of Matango

Monster of the Week: The Mushrooms of Matango
The horror of 'Matango.' Toho Co., Ltd.

The islands of the South Pacific are home to countless natural wonders -- as well as a few unnatural ones. Monster Island tends to grab most of the headlines with its rampaging kaiju, but the isle of Matango offers an even more insidious horror.

Final form.
Toho Co., Ltd.

You may call them the mushroom people or "the fungus of terror," but the denizens of Matango (????) pay no heed to human languages. These endoparasites swiftly colonize any animal that consumes it, hijacking its behavior so that the host encourages others to partake of tainted shrooms. Then madness ensues as the fungus consumes the host, transforming it into a shambling, humanoid mushroom with flesh-rending claws.

It's tempting to compare the Matango to the intelligent, extraterrestrial Mi-Go -- the so-called Fungi from Yuggoth. Yet, scale aside, the mindless mushrooms of Matango find plenty of parallels in the world of terrestrial fungi.

The Carnivorous Mushroom

Let's start by discussing the Matango's ravenous hunger for flesh -- a craving very much in keeping with their natural-world kin.

Consider the edible oyster mushroom. Yes, the one from your stir fry! These devilish little delicacies actually attack and feast on spiders and roundworms, possibly to supplement the low levels of nitrogen available in wood. According to a 2015 study published in PLOS Biology, the shrooms employ special MACPF (membrane attack complex/perforin-like) proteins to punch deadly holes in the cells of its prey -- the very tactic that human immune cells use against bacterial invaders.

It's quite understandable, really. Fungi serve as our planet's primary decomposers. Are they overstepping their boundaries to digest something that's still alive and kicking?

Fungus on the Brain

Ah, but what of the Matango's insidious ability to hijack a host's brain and alter its behavior? The fungus rewires a host to further its monstrous agenda and we see eerily similar behavior in the fungi of the Cordyceps and Ophiocordyceps genuses.

Transitional form.
Toho Co., Ltd.

These endoparasites prey on arthropods, each species specializing in a particular victim. For instance, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis targets bullet ants, compelling the unfortunate hosts to climb a tree, attach to a leaf and grow a spore-fruiting tube out of its head.

Naturally, this eruption kills the ant, but the emitted spores will infect an entire new generation of ants. It's rather beautiful in its own cruel way.

As a result, the ants fear and shun a fungi-infected compatriot -- just as humans have come to fear and shun the horrors of Matango.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.