Old photos of fungi misleadingly shared with claim they grew on 'dead Myanmar soldiers' graves'

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Three images have been shared in multiple Facebook posts that claim they show fungi that "grew where Myanmar soldiers died" in an eastern state in the country, which has seen intense fighting between the army and anti-junta fighters since a military coup in 2021. The photos, however, have been shared in a misleading context. The images predate the coup and have circulated online since at least 2016. The fungi, which resemble rotting fingers or toes, generally grow on dead trees in Europe and parts of North America.

The photos were shared here on Facebook on July 14, 2022.

They appear to show fungi that look like rotting fingers and toes sticking out between a log, or emerging from the ground.

The post's Burmese-language caption translates as: "Dead man’s finger mushroom! People said that they grew where soldiers died. Somewhere in Karenni state. P.S. Thanks for your comments. I was told about it by a local hunter. Don’t want to talk about it any further."

Karenni is the former name of Myanmar's eastern Kayah state, where fighting between anti-junta forces and the military has intensified in recent months, local media reported.

Fighting has ravaged swathes of the country since last year's putsch, which sparked renewed clashes with ethnic rebel groups and the formation of dozens of "People's Defence Forces" now battling the junta, AFP reported.

A screenshot of a misleading Facebook post taken on July 20, 2022

The same photos were shared alongside a similar claim on Facebook here and here.

Comments from some users indicated they were misled by the posts.

"They are so disgusting even after death," one wrote.

"I heard that they grew where dead bodies were buried," said another.

The photos, however, were shared in a misleading context.

The fungus Xylaria polymorpha, commonly known as dead man's fingers, generally grows in Europe and parts of North America.

British conservation charity the Woodland Trust describes the species as "macabre-looking clusters of hard, swollen, warty ‘fingers’, 3–8cm high" and that they grow from stumps and buried deadwood, most often of beech trees.

"They are fairly common in the UK, Ireland, mainland Europe and parts of North America," the article reads.

An article from the University of Wisconsin-Madison notes: "Dead man’s fingers is the name of a mushroom-like fungal growth that can be found at the base of dead or dying trees and shrubs, as well as wood objects (e.g., wood barrels) that are in contact with soil."

Combined reverse image and keyword searches found the three photos shared in the misleading posts predate the military coup in Myanmar.

Fungi photos

The first image was posted here in 2019 on Bored Panda, a blog site where users submit posts about art, design, travel and other interesting finds.

The post identifies the fungus as dead man's fingers, and states the cluster shown in the photo was found in the US state of North Carolina.

The Bored Panda article credits the image to a private Facebook group called Mushroomcore, where AFP found the original post uploaded by user Regan Daniels on June 9, 2020.

The post's caption reads: "Saw this Dead Man's Fingers (or toes in this case) Fungus that I literally thought was a Halloween decoration!

"Editing with extra pics and watermarks now for proof. People keep claiming it's fake."

Below is a screenshot comparison of the photo in the misleading posts (left) and Regan Daniel's photo (right):

Screenshot comparison between the photo in the misleading post (left) and Regan Daniel's photo (right)

AFP found the second image of the fungi posted here on a website called Charismatic Planet on June 12, 2016.

The photo is captioned: "Xylaria polymorpha, generally known as “dead man's fingers”, is a saprobic fungus." Saprobic fungi are decomposers that break down dead organic matter.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the image in the misleading posts (left) and the one posted by Charismatic Planet (right):

Screenshot comparison between the image in the misleading posts (left) and the one posted by Charismatic Planet (right)

The accompanying article titled "The Dead Man's Finger", notes the fungus grows in forest and woodland areas, normally from the "bases of rotting or injured tree stumps and decaying wood".

The image was also posted by conservation group Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay here in October 2019, crediting it to Charismatic Planet.

The third photo was posted to Twitter here by a user called George Thompson on October 31, 2019.

Below is a screenshot comparison of the photo in the misleading posts (left) and Thompson’s Twitter photo (right):

Screenshot comparison of the photo in the misleading posts (left) and Thompson’s Twitter photo (right)

Thompson, a professor at the UC Davis Medical Center told AFP his post had nothing to do with Myanmar or the dead soldiers.

"That photo depicts the fungus “Xylaria polymorpha”. It is called the “dead man’s fungus” because it looks like grey fingers with a fingernail," he said.