Deadly fungus native to Japan and Korea discovered in Australian rainforest
Poison Fire Coral, one of world’s deadliest fungus species, has been found in north Queensland, a long way from its usual home in Japan and Korea. Photograph: Ray Palmer
Poison fire coral, the only known fungus whose toxins are absorbed through the skin, found on the outskirts of Cairns
One of the world’s deadliest species of fungus, previously thought native to Japan and Korea, has been found by a photographer on the outskirts of Cairns in northern Australia.
Scientists say the discovery of poison fire coral in a pocket of rainforest in Redlynch, a Cairns suburb, indicates the fungus likely occurs naturally in other parts of Australia and south-east Asia.
Poison fire coral, typically found on tree roots and in the soil, is the only known fungus whose toxins are absorbed through the skin. There are documented fatalities caused by the species in Japan and Korea.
Matt Barrett, a mycologist from James Cook University who specialises in fungi, said poison fire coral could cause “a horrifying array of symptoms” if eaten, including stomach pain, vomiting and fever. Eventually it can cause death by multiple organ failure or brain nerve dysfunction.
“Of the hundred or so toxic mushrooms that are known to researchers, this is the only one in which the toxins can be absorbed through the skin,” Barrett said.
“Most fungi, even death cap (mushrooms) you can handle them fine without having any symptoms at all. To have a fungus that can cause symptoms on touch ... it’s something we need to be aware of.”
Barrett said the fungus was “much more widespread than it initially was thought to be” and that the Cairns finding matched recent photographs from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. This was the first time poison fire coral had been sighted in Australia.
Photographer Ray Palmer said he found the fungus in a pocket of rainforest “in a little hidden area but close to suburbia”.
“For anyone to find it they’d have to deliberately be looking for it,” he said.
Palmer, who goes looking for fungi in the rainforest and other areas during the wet season, said he had photographed a similar species a few years ago.
“When I saw it I recognised it,” he said.
“It hasn’t been recorded south of Java, and Java is only a recent discovery.
“It could be more widespread through the rainforest up here, there’s a lot of areas slightly off the beaten track.”
Barrett said there was “so much more to be found” in northern Australia.
“This is really right in suburban Cairns, it’s not a difficult fungus to notice and it’s suddenly turned up. Certainly we’re interested in any more sightings that are made of it.
“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.”