A rare and deadly fungus, the only one that can poison a human from mere touch, has just showed up where nobody expected – in suburban Queensland, in the far north of Australia.
Originally discovered in China in 1895, the reddish-orange poison fire coral (Podostroma cornu-damae) is predominantly encountered in Asia, including Korea, Japan, and the Java Islands.
When even a tiny amount is touched or consumed, it can cause your skin to peel off, your hair to fall out, your brain to shrink, and a whole lot of other terrifying and potentially lethal symptoms.
“I thought ‘no, this can’t be it because this is in Australia’ — it’s not known to be in Australia,” the self-proclaimed fungi fanatic who found the mushroom told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
Ray Palmer has been photographing fungus species for over a decade. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Poison fire coral had never been found south of Java before, and yet here it was, in a pocket of rainforest right next to a bunch of residential homes.
Commonly found on tree roots and in the soil, the mushroom produces at least eight toxic compounds that can be absorbed straight through the skin. Without a known cure or treatment, several fatalities have been recorded over the years, especially from people mistaking this fungus for an edible mushroom you can put in tea.
The Australian Tropical Herbarium (ATH) has since confirmed the identity of this find. Instead of viewing this as the sudden arrival of an invasive species, experts think it might actually be a natural occurrence, in the sense that this coral-like mushroom has probably existed here since its drifting spores arrived from Asia thousands of years ago.
Yet until now, it’s somehow evaded mycologists. Poison fire coral is rare and in northern Australia, fungi in general are not well catalogued at all. Data on the actual distribution of this bright mushroom is scattered, but other sightings have recently been noted as far south as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
In light of these discoveries, trickling ever southwards, Barrett says poison fire coral is looking “much more widespread than it initially was thought to be”.
“We don’t have hordes of mushroom hunters in tropical Australia… so it has just gone undetected until now,” he told the BBC, adding that in the past six months, more than 20 previously undiscovered species have also been identified in Australia.
As one of the few people searching for mushrooms in northern Queensland, Palmer himself says he has discovered other species we didn’t think belonged in Australia, showing the continent isn’t quite as isolated as it might seem.
“The fact that we can find such a distinctive and medically important fungus like poison coral right in our backyard shows we have much to learn about fungi in northern Australia,” Palmer told The Guardian.