ĀWHETO AND THE FOREST PORINA MOTH
Āwheto refers to both caterpillars and the vegetable like state of a caterpillar that has been infected by a parasitic fungus used by early Māori as pigment for tā moko, traditional tattooing. The vegetable caterpillars were collected from the forest floor, dried then burnt. The resulting charcoal and ash were crushed into a powder and mixed with fat and water to produce a black paste that was used as the ink.
Āwheto in the context of the vegetable caterpillar used in tā moko refers to the fruiting body and host, of the parasitic fungus Ophicodyceps robertsii that infects caterpillars from the forest porina moths. The caterpillars of the forest porina moths spend their days within silk-lined vertical shafts under the soil. They emerge at night to feed on leaf litter, forest grasses and seedlings. While browsing, it is suspected that they ingest the fungus’ reproductive spores. Inside the caterpillar the spores germinate and use the nutrients in the caterpillar's body tissue to grow, eventually killing the caterpillar. As the fungus matures, the body of the caterpillar slowly dries out and eventually a thin brown stem emerges above the surface of the soil which contains the spore bearing fruiting body of the fungus.
Below is an image of an infected caterpillar of the forest porina moth Aoraia dinoides and examples of the adult forest porina moth.