Nature's Most Gruesome Deaths

Horror films have nothing on Mother Nature, explains Gerry Hart.

Gerry Hart
30th October 2017
Cordyceps is the fungal version of Ridley Scott's Xenomorph. Image: Erich G. Vallery, USDA Forest Service - SRS-4552, (CC BY 3.0)

Isn’t Mother Nature great? Her resplendent beauty surpasses all human endeavour, yet ever inspires the mind. That is until she kills you to death. In the spirit of the Halloween season, let’s take a look at some of the more colourful ways the natural world can kill off its unfortunate denizens.

In talking about this article with the Science editors, one of the first possible examples that came up was Cordyceps, a particularly nasty parasitic fungus that preys on insects, so let’s start there. Though there are several variants, the most famous is Ophiocordyceps, or the so-called “Zombie fungus”. Found in the jungles of Southeast Asia and Brazil, this fungus is most famous for targeting ants. Once infected, the fungus will take control of the host’s mind, directing them upwards.

The ant will then attach itself to a tree branch or leaf before the fungus erupts from the now dead host’s head, spreading its spores on to more unfortunate victims. Though several ant species have found a way to sense the fungus and isolate infected colony members, Cordyceps has been known to wipe out entire colonies. And if that weren’t terrifying enough, fossil evidence indicates Cordyceps has been preying on insects for millions of years.

On the subject of fossils, let’s talk about predator traps. Broadly speaking, these are natural locations such as swamps or tar pits that carnivorous animals are lured to by the prospect of an easy meal before becoming trapped and die. These sites provide palaeontologists with a wealth of fossils and information on prehistoric wildlife, with famous examples including the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, where numerous Mastodon, dire wolf and giant sloth bones have been unearthed, and the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Utah, famed for its high concentration of Allosaurus fossils.

Imagine you’re a carnivorous dinosaur. You’re going on your merry way when all of a sudden you chance upon a drying, muddy swamp full of dead dinosaurs. Sweet! An all you can eat buffet of festering carcasses right? WRONG! Those animals died of exhaustion trying to escape and now you’re doomed as well. Hope you enjoy having your petrified skeleton mounted for the amusement of weakling mammals, nerd.

One sloth (Mylodon, now Paramylodon) trapped, two guarding against Sabre Tooth (Smilodon fatalis). Image: Charles R. Knight, via Wikimedia Commons

One sloth (Mylodon, now Paramylodon) trapped, two guarding against Sabre Tooth (Smilodon fatalis). Image: Charles R. Knight, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus far we’ve not really touched on the ways the natural world can kill off humans, so let’s do that now with a brief look at diseases, few of which have had such a profound impact as the Bubonic Plague. Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, initial symptoms include fever, nausea and chills before developing the characteristic swollen lymph nodes or “buboes”, which can developed in puss-filled, oozing sores.

Tissue necrosis is also common, and if left untreated most cases result in death. There have been three major outbreaks in recorded history. The first, known as the Plague of Justinian after the ruling Byzantine Emperor, occurred during the mid-6th century AD and is credited by historians as stunting Justinian’s plans to restore the old Roman Empire.

The second, and by far most famous outbreak was the infamous Black Death, which ravaged Europe and the Middle East from 1346-1350 and is believed to have killed as much as one third of Europe’s population. Despite not being as well known, the third plague outbreak still killed over 12 million people across China and India and was considered active until 1959, over a century after it first broke out in the 1850s.

The 'Black Death' is a recent term, it was originally referred to as "the Great Mortality" or "the Pestilence". Image via Wikimedia Commons

The 'Black Death' is a recent term, it was originally referred to as "the Great Mortality" or "the Pestilence". Image via Wikimedia Commons

But that’s just a sample of some of nature’s surprises here on Earth. There’s plenty of stuff out in space that can kill you just as easily. There’s disagreements among physicists as to what would happen if one were to fall into a black hole but a common hypothesis is that one would undergo “spaghettification”. In essence, once you passed the Black Hole’s event horizon, its gravitational pull would have a greater effect on your atoms closer to its centre, and thus as you descended you would be violently stretched out as your atoms are violently ripped torn from one another by gravity.

And that concludes our brief tour through some of nature’s death traps. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably never leave your flat after reading this (the itch at the top of my head I got whilst researching the Cordyceps segment was particularly unsettling). Happy Halloween kids.

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