Self-confessed “fungi fanatic” Ray Palmer is pursuing his obsession in a tropical rainforest when he stumbles across something utterly unexpected. It’s a fungus that botanists call Podostroma cornu-damae, but it is more familiarly known as poison fire coral. Scientists have always believed it to be a species found only in Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. But Palmer is in neither of those countries; he’s not even in Asia.
Poison fire coral is not something to meddle with, since its toxicity more than lives up to its name. Evidence of this came in 1999 when five Japanese people drank some sake in which they’d soaked one gram of poison fire coral. Sadly, they all died within two days. The fungus is in fact so toxic that just touching it can cause a highly unpleasant reaction.
In fact, that ability to cause troublesome symptoms just from contact makes poison fire coral highly unusual. Fungi expert Dr. Matt Barrett told the BBC in October 2019, “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.”
Up until recently, experts had believed that poison fire coral was found mainly in Japan and Korea – where it was a native species – although specimens have also turned up in Thailand, China and Papua New Guinea. But Ray Palmer’s recent find came in Far North Queensland, Australia. Worryingly, he discovered the lethal fungus in a patch of rainforest in Redlynch, a suburb of the city of Cairns.
So how did this deadly fungus find its way to Australia? Speaking to the IFLScience website in October 2019, Dr. Barrett explained, “We aren’t sure but we think it is a natural occurrence. Fungi disperse by tiny wind-blown spores, so they can travel long distances. It probably dispersed into northern Australia thousands of years ago. There are not many people who look for fungi in northern Australia, so we think it has just been overlooked.”