Here’s a hypothetical question.

Ever wondered what trying one of those iconic red and white polka-dot shrooms — aka the Amanita muscaria or ‘fly agaric‘ — would be like? Even if its poison could likely mean your last psychedelic trip ever?

Well — of course not — you’re not crazy!

But, what if there was a way for you to evolve so that your body could neutralise the poison? Only in exchange, you’ll spend the rest of your life as a squirrel…

We’re just playing, obviously. However, researchers from Kobe University in Japan have discovered that Japanese squirrels can pick and eat fly agaric mushrooms safely. And, they enjoy doing so quite frequently! No such thing as forbidden fungi to these critters, apparently! 

Japanese Squirrel Spotted with Toxic Mushrooms

red squirrel eating fly agaric mushroom toadstool
via Creative Commons

In Nagano prefecture, Japan, Professor Kenji Suetsugu, along with photographer Koichi Gomi, spotted a Japanese squirrel (Sciurus lis) snacking on Amanita muscaria many times for a couple of days. It wasn’t just fly agaric, either: the critter’s charcuterie also included Amanita pantherina, aka Panther cap mushrooms. What astonished the team, however, was the squirrel’s ability to withstand the deadly poison that comes with both species of psychedelic fungi. 

Professor Suetsugu wrote in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment:

“Interestingly, we observed a Japanese squirrel (Sciurus lis) routinely feed not only on A. muscaria but also on other Amanita species that are also poisonous to humans. This squirrel returned to feed on Amanita fruiting bodies for several days, indicating that it could safely consume the ‘poisonous’ mushrooms.

Spores and Squirrels

squirrel up a tree
Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

After getting over the initial shock, the team figured out that the Japanese squirrel must have evolved in some way to eat the poisonous mushrooms with no side effects. The new theory? Nature always finds a way. So what if the Amanita fungi are actually using the squirrels to spread the mushroom’s spores? Kinda like monkeys eating the fruits of plants and pooping out the seeds later on.

Suetsugu explained:

“Perhaps Amanita mushrooms facilitate mutualisms with toxin-resistant squirrels, which can disperse viable spores, while [blocking out] toxin-susceptible enemies, which could negatively impact spore survival.”

Mutualism occurs in nature when two or more species benefit from their interactions. It’s a type of win-win, symbiotic situation for all involved; no predator or prey basically. 

“If so, potential dispersal of fungal spores by squirrels is analogous to a seed dispersal mutualism, in which a plant offers a reward to an animal as a seed disperser.”

Amanita Spore Dispersal

Professor Suetsugu wants to study the Japanese squirrels even further. This time on a larger scale, tracking the critters’ movements in the forest. Then they recorded if they spread the Amanita spores or not. The only way to be sure is to test the squirrel poop for live spores. 

The researchers wrote of this new goal:

“How do squirrels safely eat Amanita mushrooms? What role do squirrels play in Amanita spore dispersal? How would squirrel-assisted spore dispersal contribute to the [building] of ectomycorrhizal relationships within these ecosystems? These questions warrant further investigation.”

If the Amanita spores can remain intact in the stomach and intestines, then it’s possible that Japanese squirrels could have been “chosen” to spread the mushroom spores. The deadly poison might be intended to block certain animals (such as deer, red pandas, or bears) whose guts would break down the spores. 

Other creatures, such as the Japanese squirrel, that can survive the Amanita’s defence would be paid for dispersing its spores with a yummy treat.

“The ecological roles of fungal toxins remain largely unexplored,” wrote the researchers. “One possible role is to deter fungivores. However, fungivores are not always disadvantageous to Amanita, because they may disperse intact spores via their digestive tracts.”

Amanita Muscaria as Food

fly agaric toadstool
Photo by Jaap Straydog on Unsplash


Did you know that some Japanese also relish Amanita as a delicacy? Though the species is known primarily for their toxic compounds, forest dwellers were the first to consume Amanita as food ⁠— only after taking out the poison, of course. 

In 2000, researcher Allan Grady Phipps wrote about the ancient Japanese use of Amanita muscaria, known locally as beni-tengu-take:

“The poisonous fruiting bodies of Amanita muscaria are harvested by rural inhabitants of Sanada Town, Japan. These mountain villagers consume beni-tengu-take as a local delicacy, despite its potential hallucinogenic effects.

The Japanese use several methods to detoxify beni-tengu-take, but believe pickling the mushrooms to be the safest. Other methods of preparation include grilling and drying the mushrooms.”

Amanita’s Unique Role

Amanita muscaria’s fantastical look has inspired writers and artists for centuries. 

The recent findings have shone a light once again on the role of Amanita and other fungi in making sure forests remain lush and intact. Professor Suetsugu also pointed out what precisely sets the Amanita species apart from other mushrooms in the forest. He wrote:

“The representative toadstool Amanita muscaria plays an important role in maintaining forest ecosystems by forming mutualistic associations with a variety of trees. 

A. muscaria is also known for the poisonous properties of its hallucinogenic constituents, namely, ibotenic acid, muscimol, and muscarin. Serious cases of poisoning in humans may involve deliria, hallucinations, seizures, and (rarely) death.

“A typical symptom is visual distortion of the size of objects, a phenomenon that formed the basis of the mind-altering events described in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Mushroom Miracle

Nature has figured out a way to make Japanese squirrels immune to the deadly poison of fly agaric and panther caps. This makes them perfect agents for spore dispersal. More than just their reputation as hallucinogens, these fungi play a much larger role in forest ecology than we’ve previously thought. 

From mutualistic relationships with various plants, to helping trees talk to one another, and now this crazy friendship with squirrels? Psychedelic mushroom species such as Amanita and Psilocybe (aka true magic mushrooms and magic truffles) sure are a scientific marvel to behold.