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Deadly Brain Shrinking Fungus Found In Suburban Australia

A fungus dubbed the world's second-deadliest has been found in suburban Cairns, with researchers fearing it could be spread throughout the Australian tropics.

The Poison Fire Coral fungus is responsible for several fatalities in Asian countries.

The deadly fungi was identified by James Cook University’s Dr Matt Barrett after a local photographer snapped an image of it growing in Redlynch, a suburb in western Cairns.

"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,” Dr Barrett said, warning that if found, the fungus should not be touched.

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“Just touching the Fire Coral fungus can cause dermatitis (reddening or swelling of the skin). If eaten, it causes a horrifying array of symptoms: initially stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and numbness, followed (over hours or days) by delamination of skin on face, hands and feet, and shrinking of the brain, which, in turn, causes altered perception, motion difficulties and speech impediments.”

If untreated consumption can be fatal due to organ failure and brain nerve damage.

The bright red Poison Fire Coral fungi were found on tree roots and soil in Cairns. Image: Ray Palmer

The bright, eye-catching fungus is usually found in the mountains of Japan and Korea, though it has been spotted growing in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, leading scientists to now believe it naturally grows in Cairns.

“This record extends the distribution of the fungus considerably, and it may be even more widespread in tropical Australia,” Dr Barrett warned.

“The fact that we can find such a distinctive and medically important fungus like the Poison Fire Coral right in our backyard shows we have much to learn about fungi in northern Australia.”

Contact the author scmcdonald@networkten.com.au