A chunk of fossilized amber suggests that dinosaurs may have ingested psychotropic fungi.
Like all dinosaur enthusiasts, I have spent a lot of time trying to picture the colorations, vocalizations, and temperaments of these spectacular animals. But as it turns out, I overlooked one of the most essential questions of all: Did dinosaurs ever trip on hallucinogens?
According to a new paper in the journal Palaeodiversity, it is entirely possible that they did. The key evidence for this magical scenario is embedded inside a chunk of fossilized amber discovered in Myanmar. The specimen dates back about 97 to 110 million years ago, and contains the earliest evidence of grass in the fossil record.
But here's the kicker: Perched on top of the exquisitely preserved grass spikelet is a fungal parasite that greatly resembles the modern fungus ergot.
Ergot has played an incredibly influential role in human history as a medicine, a poison, and a hallucinogen. In fact, ergot poisoning has become a kind of historical catch-all—it has been implicated in everything from the inspiration of Beowulf to the manic paranoia of the Salem Witch Trials. It is the species that gave the world LSD, among many other drugs. As the authors note in the paper, "few fungi have had a greater historical impact on society than ergot."
Incidentally, humans aren't the only species susceptible to ergot. It provokes a wide range of reactions in other animals, and is a perennial problem for livestock farmers. If the fungus has had such an enormous effect on extant life, perhaps its fossilized predecessor also held sway over Cretaceous grazers like sauropods.
"The specimen is very similar to modern ergot regarding its color, position at the top of the grass spikelet and its production of spores," lead author George Poinar told me over email. "The lobes set it apart from extant forms."
Poinar is a prominent author and paleo-entomologist based at Oregon State University, and his expertise in extracting DNA from amber fossils provided partial inspiration for the Jurassic Park franchise. Perhaps this paper will also end up as the kernel of an entirely new blockbuster series, about dinosaurs in the throes of psychotropic madness.
But scientifically speaking, Poinar and his colleagues aren't jumping to any conclusions. "Whether dinosaurs would have gotten dizzy, nauseous, or were otherwise affected is difficult to say," he told me.
He did, however, note that the closest living relatives of dinosaurs are deeply affected by ergot ingestion. "Reptiles that ingest ergot can have severe vascular spasms leading to the necrosis of their extremities," he said. "In chickens, ergot can atrophy and disfigure the comb, wattles, face, legs, toes, and eyelids."
Whether or not the giant sauropods of the Cretaceous shared these unenviable symptoms with their modern kin may never be known. For now, it's enough to marvel at this rare glimpse of a lost world provided by an exquisite, amber time capsule.