Even then, the grass was topped by a fungus very similar to ergot, which for eons has been intertwined in human history, since it grows on the grasses that form most of the diet of the human race, reports David Stauth at Oregon State University.
Ergot, you see, is the precursor of LSD has been variously used as a medicine, as a toxin, and as a hallucinogen. It may even, according to some historians, have been a factor in the Salem Witch Trials.
And since the fossilized grass was 100 million years old, putting it all the way back in the Cretaceous Period, that means huge grass-eating sauropod dinosaurs would likely have been tripping balls on a regular basis. In other animal species, the fungus can cause hallucinations, delirium, gangrene, convulsions, and staggering. That could be a pretty compelling sight if the creature in question were a multi-ton dinosaur.
The findings and analysis surrounding the amber fossil are published in the journal Paleodiversity, by researchers from OSU, the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Survey, and Germany.
“It seems like ergot has been involved with animals and humans almost forever, and now we know that this fungus literally dates back to the earliest evolution of grasses,” said George Poinar, Jr., an OSU College of Science faculty member who specializes in the life forms found in amber.
“This is an important discovery that helps us understand the timeline of grass development, which now forms the basis of the human food supply in such crops as corn, rice or wheat,” Poinar said. “But it also 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,” Poinar said.
Amber starts as tree sap, which can flow around small plants and animals and permanently preserve them, at it fossilizes into a semi-precious stone. Poinar is considered one of the planet’s preeminent experts in examining such specimens and using them to learn more about ecosystems in prehistory.
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.
The fossil, taken from amber mines in Myanmar, dates back to 97-110 million years ago to the early-to-mid Cretaceous, when the land was still dominated by dinosaurs and coniferous trees, but the earliest flowering plants, grasses and small mammals were beginning to evolve. The fossil shows grass tipped by the dark fungus.
Grasses would become a powerful life form on Earth much later in evolution, creating 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, of course, changed the entire development of the human race from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and it’s now estimated that grasses compose about 20 percent of global vegetation.
Researchers noted in their report that “few fungi have had a greater historical impact on society than ergot.”
Scientists speculate that ergot’s psychoactivity may be a natural defense mechanism, helping to repel herbivores (unless they want to trip, that is). The fungus makes grass or wheat taste bitter and is not a preferred food for livestock. Ergot still presents problems for farmers who produce cereal and grass, as well as in pastures and grazing land.
The fungus has been known to cause irrational behavior; in cattle it causes a disease called the “Paspalum staggers.” It sometimes killed thousands of people during epidemics in the Middle Ages when ergot-infected rye bread was more common.
Ergot has also been used as a medicine to induce abortion or speed labor in pregnant women.
More than 1,000 compounds have been extracted from the fungus, including, in 1943 by Swedish researcher Albert Hofmann, LSD (lysergic acid diethlamide), which has been widely used as a psychedelic drug.
LSD was made illegal in 1966 as it began to catch on among American youth. While essentially nontoxic, it is a powerful psychedelic and can result in freakouts among the uninitiated.