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Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Berk.) G.H. Sung, J.M. Sung, Hywel-Jones & Spatafora

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Scientific name
Ophiocordyceps sinensis
(Berk.) G.H. Sung, J.M. Sung, Hywel-Jones & Spatafora
Common names
Chinese caterpillar fungus
Keerha jarhi, Yarcha Gumba
IUCN Specialist Group
Cup-fungi, Truffles and Allies
Assessment status
Preliminary Assessed
Proposed by
Zhuliang Yang
Zhuliang Yang
Anders Dahlberg, Nirmal Harsh, Zhuliang Yang
Comments etc.
Paul Cannon

Assessment Status Notes

Taxonomic notes

The species is known to exhibit substantial genetic diversity (Stensrud et al. 2007; Zhang et al. 2009), especially in the southern part of its range. Here, populations are likely to be more isolated due to the terrain and it is possible that speciation has occurred. However, populations from particular regions which are more prized than others are not reported.

Why suggested for a Global Red List Assessment?

Ophiocordyceps sinensis (Cordyceps sinensis) has long been recorded as one of the most valued Traditional Chinese Medicines. Recent studies have also demonstrated that the fungus can be used to treat a wide range of conditions. It has been officially classified as a drug in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia since 1964, and listed as an endangered species under the second class of state protection since 1999. However, the endangered situation of this species is becoming worse and worse due to its strict host-specificity on moth insects, and confined geographical distribution, and over exploitation by humans in recent decades. The price of natural products of O. sinensis has increased sharply in recent years and is now sold at the price of gold or higher.

Preliminary red-list assessment: VU A2acd+4acd (Vulnerable)

Motivation: The threats and causes for decline is over-collection, only one species (vector), habitat destruction. Documentation: at least 3 diff papers stating the decrease. Data extrapolated for larger area. Pop.size: estimates possible to make from harvest data (need to be adjusted for harvest efforts). Much research is done.Decrease: Exact figures is hard to make but estimated > 30% coz of price rushing up. Populations close to communities extinct and ppl going further and further away to collect. Density of collectors is increasing. Range: Restricted. Every data indicates VU but lack of certainity if over/under threshold (30%) mean that the evaluation could also change to NT with more info. Length of evaluation period 30-45 years, as generation time is estimated to be 10-15 years).

Geographic range

Ophiocordyceps sinensis is confined to Bhutan, southwestern China, Northern India, and Nepal, at altitudes 3,000-5000 m. In China, it is distributed in Tibet, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces.

Population and Trends

It is a challenge to estimate the population size and trends of O. chinensis due to natural fluctuations of the hosts, increasing commercial activities and few monitoring initiatives. A small-scale study in Bhutan indicated a 60% variation in numbers of individuals in a research plot over a three-year period, probably due to natural fluctuations in population size of the host caterpillars (Paul Cannon et al., pers. comm). However, the harvest size and market price of the fungus may serve as a gross population estimate.  The local market price has increased by up to 2300% over the last 10 years in Dolpa, Nepal, which have encouraged the local harvesters to collect more intensively and more wisely geographically. Based on interviews with 203 harvesters and 28 traders, and focus group discussions in Dolpa, Nepal, Shrestha & Bawa (2013) quantified the amount of harvest and trade. After legalization of trade in Nepal in 2001, trade volume increased persistently, reaching a peak of 2442.4 kg in 2009 and subsequently declining to 1170.8 kg in 2011. The mean annual harvest declined from 260.66 ± 212.21 pieces per person in 2006 to 125.82 ± 96.84 pieces per person in 2010. Their analysis of harvesters’ perceptions of resource abundance and sustainability shows that virtually all harvesters (95.1%) believe the availability of the caterpillar fungus in the pastures to be declining, and 67% consider current harvesting practices to be unsustainable. The evidence from interview of harvesters and traders in Bhutan and China largely mirrors that found in Nepal. In Gurjakhani area of Barse block of Myagdi district, Nepal, the collection of O. chinensis has declined by 37%— accounted in the collected weight (kg) — between 2008 and 2010 (Thapa et al. 2014). The opinion of harvesters throughout the range of the species that populations are in decline.

In northern India whole villages, except elderly and small children, go and stay in the alpine meadows for nearly three months as soon as the snow starts melting in March – April for collection of the fungus (Negi et al. 2006). Family members come back on leave from jobs so that they can contribute in O. sinensis collection due to its higher economic return. Before 1995 there were only a few collectors and they did not use to get good price, however, the number of collectors as well as collect steadily increased until 2007. A primary collector may collect 45 to 55 mummified larvae and fungus in a season. In Munsyari market in Pithoragarh district in north India alone nearly 90 kg of the produce was sold in 2009. About 3-5 quintals of O. sinensis per annum is estimated to illegally be traded from Dharchula (India) to Nepal and finally to international market. The sources reveal that the collection is declining gradually after 2007 as the number of collectors are increasing every year and disturbing the habitat and fragile ecology of the Himalaya. The state government has put in place a policy for collection of this fungus through local village cooperative bodies to regulate collection and legalize its trade. During collection period - tea shops and restaurants and transportation of food material to the collection areas - about 48000 employment days was generated per year for the local (Personal communication by G. C. Pant).

Population Trend: Deteriorating

Habitat and Ecology

Ophiocordyceps sinensis, an endemic species to the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau, is distributed largely in isolated patches of alpine grasslands of 3,000-5,000 m elevation. It parasitizes underground dwelling larvae of moths (Lepidoptera), especially species of Thitarodes. The larvae of the host insect live underground for their entire larval stage of three to four years or longer, feeding on roots and caudexes of alpine plants. If infected by the fungus, they usually die in the winter. The body of the insect host is used by the fungus as substrate to form the mycelium, which is, finally converted into a sclerotium, leaving the exoskeleton intact. The fungal stroma comes out in the spring or early summer of the following year. Interestingly, the roots of many alpine plants are mycorrhizal partners of many alpine fungi.
There are probably many species of Thitarodes associated with O. sinensis, few of which are well-known. Some at least will face the same threats as O. sinensis. There is some evidence that O. sinensis is coevolved with its hosts (Quan et al. 2014a. b), but little knowledge as yet that particular populations or other subgroups are specific to particular Thitarodes taxa.
Thitarodes caterpillars seem to be generalist feeders and recent information suggests that they prefer roots of grasses and other herbaceous plants over those of Rhododendron species that are frequently present in the same habitats. Spread of Rhododendron may therefore threaten O. sinensis populations.
The infection process and life cycle of the fungus and its host need more research. There are indications in some areas that the caterpillar is infected soon after hatching and the fungus may stay dormant within its body for several years until the caterpillar is ready to pupate. Physiological changes caused by pupation may stimulate active growth of the fungus and death of the caterpillar.

OLD TEXT (It parasitizes underground dwelling larvae of moths (Lepidoptera), especially species of Thitarodes. The larvae of the host insect live underground for their entire larval stage of three to four years or longer, feeding on roots and caudexes of alpine plants. If infected by the fungus, they usually die in the winter. The body of the insect host is used by the fungus as substrate to form the mycelium, which is, finally converted into a sclerotium, leaving the exoskeleton intact. The fungal stroma comes out in the spring or early summer of the following year. Interestingly, the roots of many alpine plants are mycorrhizal partners of many alpine fungi. In addition, the hosts have coevoluted with the fungus in the past based on recent scientific studies.)

Temperate Grassland


Besides over-collections by human-beings, there are numerous other threats to survival of this species. Over-grazing leading to desertification has been observed; paradoxically there are concerns also that under-grazing is deleterious to the species as the increased vegetation height reduces the effectiveness of spore dispersal. Ecosystem-level threats caused by harvesters chopping down trees for firewood are important in some parts of the fungus’s range, and N pollution from the increased population probably has a deleterious effect on the environment. Changes in vegetation cover have been observed, especially increase in growth of dwarf rhododendron which probably does not benefit the species. Ground-dwelling birds and charismatic megafauna are also deterred by the harvesters, reducing the value of the collection sites for ecotourism. And finally, global warming will cause further desertification of the Tibetan plateau and reduce the altitudinal islands in the Himalayas that are suitable for O. sinensis production.

Intentional use: large scale (species being assessed is the target) [harvest]

Conservation Actions

Presently, various actions have taken place. In Bhutan and in some areas of China, collection is restricted to the indigenous population. Restrictions have also been placed on the number of family members allowed to collect, and on the period in which harvest is allowed. In Bhutan, collection at the end of the season was/is restricted, to allow the remaining stromata to sporulate. Immature specimens have a higher economic value so this rule minimized the financial impact on the harvesters. In Bhutan, support for the harvesters by regulating the market and preventing exploitation by the middle-men of the economic chain, and through education in post-harvest processing, has improved incomes and hopefully also trust between harvesters and conservation officials. Despite all of these measures, there is some pessimism that they have actually achieved even a degree of sustainability, due to the sheer value of the product stimulating a short-term approach. In Bhutan and other parts of the fungus’s range, much of the land is already protected by designation as national parks or nature reserves. However, under-resource of the regulatory organizations means that their protection is limited and is particularly weak in border areas. A participatory approach which gives some decision-making power to the indigenous people is more likely to succeed, unless the protected areas are sufficiently remote.

Harvest managementInternational levelNational level

Research needed

To study the population sizes and trends in order to get sound data for further international legislation and protection. There is currently a substantial amount of research into cultivation of the species, which could reduce the impact on natural populations. However, while numerous claims have been made, it appears that there has been very limited success in rearing the caterpillar hosts and infecting them with O. sinensis to produce farmed stromata.

Population size, distribution & trendsHarvest, use & livelihoodsHarvest & Trade Management Plan


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Known distribution - countries

Regional Population and Trends

Country Trend Redlisted