Jan 23, 2023 I Paul Seaburn

Toadzilla, Super Pigs and a Real 'Last of Us' Zombie Fungus - Nature is Again Scarier than Fiction

Spend one night alone in a dark woods or one day alone in strange tropical rain forest and you will agree that nature is far scarier than anything science fiction writers have been able to muster up with their keyboards. For further proof, look no further than this week’s news. For starters, a world record cane toad – the invasive nemesis of all living things in Australia – was discovered in … well, you can figure it out. At the other end of the globe in the great white north, herds of “super pigs” are organizing an invasion of the United States. And around the world, fans of the new zombie series 'The Last of Us' can explain to you how terrifying life will be as scientists discover a real zombie fungus with the capability to evolve into a version that will really turn humans into zombies. What did we do to nature to deserve these monsters? The answer may be the biggest terror of all.

“I just couldn't believe it to be honest — I've never seen anything so big. It flinched when I walked up to it and I yelled out to my supervisor to show him. [It looked] almost like a football with legs."

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed Kylee Gray, one of the rangers for the Queensland Department of Environment and Science who on January 19 found Toadzilla – a six pound (2.7 kilograms), 9.85 inches (25 cm) long, 15 years old cane toad (Rhinella marina) in Conway National Park in Queensland. (more photos here.) Gray and other rangers were conducting track work on the Conway Circuit – a 27.1 km (16.8 miles) bike and hike trail in the park when she topped their vehicle for a snake to cross and saw the out-of-place football that turned out to be the monster cane toad.

Toadzilla (credit: Queensland Department of Environment and Science)

“I reached down and grabbed the cane toad and couldn’t believe how big and heavy it was. We dubbed it Toadzilla, and quickly put it into a container so we could remove it from the wild. A cane toad that size will eat anything it can fit into its mouth, and that includes insects, reptiles and small mammals.”

Cane toads were introduced in Queensland in 1935 to combat cane beetles, but their voracious appetite, rapid reproduction – one female can lay 30,000 eggs in a season – and their poison quickly sent their population to 200 million and made them the scourge of wildlife across the country. That makes this discovery even scarier – the rangers believe it was a female due to the size. The current Guinness World Record for the largest known toad is 5.84 pounds (2.65 kilograms) for a toad found in 1991. Unfortunately, Gray and her colleagues euthanized Toadzilla before weighing it on a certified scale, so it will simply be the unconfirmed record holder until the Conway National Park rangers find a bigger one. And you KNOW they will.

“There was a big push to diversify agriculture with species like wild boars and ostriches. Wild boars were brought in from Europe to be raised on farms across Canada.”

Thus begins our second ‘terrors of nature’ story – the ‘super pigs’ which have taken over Canada and are threatening to in the United States. Dr. Ryan Brook, the head of the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Wild Pig Research Project, told Field & Stream that Canada’s wild pig problem only dates back to the 1980s when wild boars and ostriches were brought in to add diversity to the diets of Canadians. While ostriches are easy to keep in captivity, the wild boars figured out ways to escape from the farms. Because of their European reputation as game, some hunting preserves also obtained stock. As these also escaped, pig ranchers noticed that the offspring of wild boars and pigs were bigger than the boars and retained the ability to resist the cold – resulting in what are now known as “super pigs.”

“For surviving in cold winters, one of the rules of ecology is: the bigger the better. Larger body animals survive the cold better and have better reproduction in those conditions.”

Of course they do. When the market for wild boar meat crashed in the early 2000s, unscrupulous ranchers released their stock into the wild and a feral population explosion occurred – Brook’s group estimates the super pigs have spread across roam approximately 620,000 square miles in Canada, primarily in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta. Like the giant cane toads down under, super pigs feed on anything. Brook has reports of them gorging goslings and ducklings in the spring and adult whitetail deer in the fall. Then there is the crop damage which is hurting both farms and residential areas. Needless to say, Canadians would probably be happy if the super pigs decided the great white north was too cold and headed south to the warmer climate of North Dakota.

“We have already documented pig occurrences less than 10 miles from the U.S. border. Quite honestly, I think there have already been some in Manitoba going into North Dakota for the last 5 or 6 years. There is no physical, biological boundary at the U.S.-Canada border. There is hardly any kind of fencing to speak of. There’s a real risk of pigs moving south into the U.S.”

Before you grab your firearm and check for the opening of super pig season, Brook says Canadians have already proven that hunting them does little to reduce the population – in fact, it has made many of them become nocturnal and even harder to find and eradicate. Their solution is the “Squeal on Pigs” program which lets professionals know where the super pigs are so they can be counted and removed. Will Americans abide by a “Squeal on Pigs” program? Perhaps a better name might help.

“Many, if not most new diseases likely comes from pathogenic organisms shifting from other species, so the idea is compelling.”

After three years of Covid and many years of swine and bird flu, no one should be surprised at news about yet another disease jumping from animals to humans, but the new television series “The Last of Us” takes it to a new level. Based on the PlayStation third-person game of the same name which debuted in 2013, the HBO post-apocalyptic series is based on the same idea – a mass fungal infection causes a global pandemic and the survivors must fight off blood-thirsty zombies created by the fungi. The fungus is based on a real one – Cordyceps, a genus of parasitic fungi which attack various insects’ brains, turning them into zombies which feed their eggs and even attract other living victims. Cordyceps infects carpenter ants, forcing them to walk to the top of a plant and clamp onto it until it dies. The zombie ant then grows stalks which shoot spoors to the ground and infect more ants … until there is an ant apocalypse and they get their own HBO series. Another version of Cordyceps is Entomophthora Muscae, which infects female houseflies and uses the zombie female to attract males to mate with it, then turning them into spore-shooting zombies to raise more fungi.

It's a good thing this fungus can’t infect humans … right? RIGHT?

Zombies again?

“While there isn't much known about the Zombie Fungus in the series, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already come across fungal infections of this type, such as Candida auris. Apart from its ability to spread in hospital settings, C.auris is notorious for being resistant to existing anti-fungal treatments. Worse still, four such strains of the fungus evolved around the same time, as per CDC's report. All this has come to pass in the last decade.”

Interesting Engineering delivers the warning that, while it may take millions of years for the zombie fungus to evolve to the point where it can infect humans … others have already figured it out, and their speed is due to climate change. Could that also speed up the taste for humans in Cordyceps? The chances are slim … but not none.

Toadzillas, super pigs and zombie fungi. It makes one long for the days when you could eradicate flies with a swatter and diseases with chicken soup.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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