An analysis of a 100 million-year-old grass specimen perfectly preserved in amber says that the grass was topped by a fungus similar to ergot, the fungus that provided LSD. The study by researchers from Oregon State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Germany, was published online this month in the journal Palaeodiversity.
The analysis suggests that the fungus, the grasses it lived on, and animals that ate grass – including dinosaurs – co-existed for millions of years.
Ergot, a fungus that grow on rye and wheat is a toxin and a hallucinogen. The hallucinogenic drug LSD is derived from it. People who eat ergot-contaminated grains develop powerful muscle spasms and hallucinations.
The fossil was discovered in an amber mine in Myanmar. Amber begins as a tree sap that can flow around small plant and animal forms and permanently preserve them as it fossilizes into a semi-precious stone.
The fossil dates 97-110 million years ago to the early-to-mid Cretaceous, when the land was still dominated by dinosaurs and conifers, but the earliest flowering plants, grasses and small mammals were beginning to evolve. The fossil shows a grass floret tipped by the dark fungus.
George Poinar, Jr. is an internationally recognized expert on the life forms found in amber and a faculty member in the Oregon State University College of Science. Poinar said:
[The study] shows that this parasitic fungus may have been around almost as long as the grasses themselves, as both a toxin and natural hallucinogen.
There’s no doubt in my mind that it would have been eaten by sauropod dinosaurs, although we can’t know what exact effect it had on them.
The fungus in this grass specimen, which is now extinct, was named Palaeoclaviceps parasiticus. It’s very similar to the fungus Claviceps, commonly known as ergot.
Much later in evolution, grasses would become a powerful life form on Earth, creating vast prairies, nourishing herds of animals, and eventually providing for the domestication of range animals and the cultivation of many food crops. The rise of crop agriculture changed the entire development of the human race, and it’s now estimated that grasses compose about 20 percent of global vegetation.
Some grasses have natural defense mechanisms, and ergot may be one of them, helping to repel herbivores, the researchers suggest. It’s bitter and not a preferred food to livestock, and it’s still a problem in cereal and grass seed production, as well as pastures and grazing land.
In animal and human history, the fungus has been known to cause delirium, irrational behavior, convulsions, severe pain, gangrenous limbs and death. In cattle it causes a disease called the “Paspalum staggers.” In the Middle Ages it sometimes killed thousands of people during epidemics when ergot-infected rye bread was more common. It’s been used as a medicine to induce abortion or speed labor in pregnant women, and one researcher – whose findings have been disputed – suggested it may have played a role in the Salem witch trials.
More than 1,000 compounds have been extracted or derived from it, some of them valuable drugs. They also included, in the mid-1900s, the powerful psychedelic compound lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, that is still being studied and has been widely used as an illegal recreational drug.
Bottom line: An new analysis published online in February, 2015 in the journal Palaeodiversity of a 100 million-year-old grass specimen perfectly preserved in amber says that the grass was topped by a fungus similar to ergot, the fungus that provided LSD.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.