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Caterpillar Fungus Making Tibetan Herders Rich

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Harvesting of a parasitic fungus that grows high on the Tibetan Plateau in China is infusing hordes of cash into rural communities, scientists say.

The fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, takes over the bodies of caterpillar larvae then shoots up like finger-size blades of grass out of the dead insects’ heads. (See relatedpictures: “‘Zombie’ Ants Found With New Mind-Control Fungi.”)

Known as yartsa gunbu—or “summer grass winter worm”—by Chinese consumers, the nutty-tasting fungus is highly valued for its purported medicinal benefits, for instance, as a treatment for cancer and aging and as a libido booster. Far away in the booming cities of Beijing and Shanghai, demand for the fungus has soared.

(Also see “Ancient Ginkgoes, Redwoods Threatened in China.”)

“Medically, it seems to deliver,” according to Daniel Winkler, a fungus researcher and head of Eco-Montane Consulting in Seattle, Washington.

“Even the whole thing that it’s an aphrodisiac—yes, it might really help.”

Some Chinese grind up the fungus and sell it as a powder, and others use it whole as a garnish—and therefore a display of wealth.

“When you want to impress your business partner, you stuff some kind of fowl with it to show that money doesn’t really matter to you, because you just stuffed your goose with $100 worth of mushrooms,” Winkler said.

In Tibet (see map) and other Himalaya regions of Nepal and Bhutan, yak herders who harvest the fungus are getting rich from fungus sales.

By one account, the value of caterpillar fungus shot up 900 percent between 1997 and 2008, said Winkler, who has studied the phenomenon.

Nomadic yak herders now ride motorcycles, own apartments in the city, send their kids to schools, and pay someone else to do their village chores, he said…

Via http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/04/110427-fungus-caterpillars-tibet-china-herders-science/

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Written by Nokgiir

April 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm

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