Imagine a creature that turns moths into mummies by confining them to an underground burial before emerging out of their neck to begin the cycle again. Not only does this creature exist, it’s part of New Zealand’s native biota and although referred to as the vegetable caterpillar, we are actually talking about a type of fungus – Ophiocordyceps robertsii.

Further research and scientific advances can reveal additional information that result in taxonomy changes. DNA testing of Cordyceps robertsii and related fungi has seen a name change to Ophiocordyceps robertsii.

How does this happen?

The caterpillars of the native Aoraia dinodes or Dumbletonius characterifer species of moths accidentally eat the very small, reproductive spores of the fungus when feeding on leaf litter. The insides of the caterpillar form an ideal habitat for the fungus spores to germinate and grow. When the caterpillar retreats underground to start to form into a pupa, preparing to develop into a moth, the fungus starts to grow using the caterpillar’s body for food. As the fungus grows, it forms a shell around the caterpillar’s body, and slowly the whole thing dries out. The caterpillar is slowly turned into a mummy and is dried and preserved in the fungal casing.

As the fungus feeds from the nutrients in the caterpillar’s body, it grows and is eventually ready to reproduce again. It grows a small stem through the head of the caterpillar, which is the part of the body closest to the forest floor. The stem grows slowly until it pushes through to the forest floor. When it reaches the fresh air, the top of the stem thickens to develop a layer of flask-shaped structures in which are produced fungal spores in sets of eight, each set within a sac called an ascus. These are released into the atmosphere, to be inadvertently consumed by another unsuspecting caterpillar moth, and the cycle begins again.

Signs of the vegetable caterpillar can be found in New Zealand bush. Look for small (2–3 millimetres thick) brown stems pushing up through the leaf litter. If you carefully dig these out, you might see the moth mummy that is often still attached at the bottom, dried and preserved by the fungus.

Is the fungus useful?

Recent research in New Zealand has been focusing on the traditional uses of fungi like the vegetable caterpillar fungus. Dr Peter Buchanan and his master’s student Rebekah Fuller have been investigating the uses Māori had for native fungi species. Rebekah has been working with Māori communities throughout New Zealand and has interviewed them about their knowledge of fungi. Their results are interesting.

Traditionally, Māori looked for the vegetable caterpillar fungus and sometimes used it for food. Apparently, when fresh, it tastes a little like a nut. The more common use was as an ingredient of the ink used to create a moko (tattoo). Several dried moths were heated over the fire to form a black charcoal. This was mixed with other ingredients such as muttonbird fat to form the ink that was etched into the skin. This practice doesn’t occur any more, but may explain why moko were such a rich black colour.

Nature of science

One characteristic of good science is when scientists listen to contributions from everybody when they are developing understandings of phenomena. The vegetable caterpillar shows us how Māori knowledge has opened up interesting avenues for research.

Further research by scientists suggests that the vegetable caterpillar fungi produce a range of chemicals that have antiseptic qualities and so prevent infection. When Māori used the dried powder from this fungus, they may have been preventing the moko from becoming infected. Scientists are working to identify and extract these chemicals to see if they have a place in modern medicine.

Selling mummified caterpillars

At the beginning of the 1900s, the Auckland to Rotorua train would slow considerably on an incline through what was the primeval Mamaku Forest. People were able to run alongside the train and sell the mummified caterpillars to tourists as curios. The caterpillar mummies sold for the fortune of 10 shillings each.

Useful links

Listen to Industrial Research Limited (IRL) chemist Stephen Tauwhare discussing the possible health benefits of the vegetable caterpillar, or awheto.

    Published 30 April 2009, Updated 15 July 2015