When an organism dies, such as the pictured American Toad, a series of decomposers appear and break it down. Some of the first insects to arrive at the scene are blowflies, and they lose no time in laying eggs which rapidly hatch into larvae, or maggots. A bit later, carrion beetles move in. Both of these insects live in dead carcasses, where they eat raw flesh and fungi. There is great competition, believe it or not, for rotting bodies, and carrion beetles such as the pictured American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) have managed to find a way to eliminate some of it. They carry tiny mites on their backs which travel from carcass to carcass with the beetles, devouring the eggs of maggots as well as the smallest maggots themselves. In addition, carrion beetles secrete a strong offensive odor that irritates other insects and predators, a second effective way to reduce the number of insects competing for a corpse.
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Long before the beetles and flies move in to get their share of a dead carcass many meat eaters have usually taken advantage of the easy meal. A motion camera on a dead white-tailed deer recently captured the images of 12 scavengers over a six day period. They included an opossum, several coyotes, a raccoon, red fox, striped skunk, American crow, raven, turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk and bald eagle. By the end of this time, there wasn’t much left except for bare bones, which, as winter progresses, will eventually be eaten as well. Not a shred is wasted – nature knows how to recycle and has been doing it for eons.
Slime mold guessers are right! This is a slime mold — aptly-named “Dog Vomit Slime Mold” (Fuligo septica). Slime molds are not plants, animals, fungi or bacteria. This stage of a slime mold’s life cycle is called a plasmodium, which is essentially one giant cell with millions of nuclei. The plasmodium moves by slowly flowing over the ground, gradually engulfing and consuming fungi and bacteria that are present on decaying plant matter. You often find it on mulch that is regularly watered. Dog Vomit Slime Mold is harmless to people, pets and plants. In fact, it is actually edible. In some parts of Mexico people scramble it like eggs (and call it “caca de luna”).
If you take a walk in the woods right now, you’ll find that overnight the fruiting bodies of a wide variety of fungi have popped up all over the forest floor, none more obvious than the white Comb Tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides). It is delicately branched and covered with fleshy spines most of which are under half an inch in length. Look for Comb Tooth on fallen hardwood branches, logs and stumps, particularly those of American Beech and maples. If you are with someone whose fungus identification skills you trust, and they confirm that you have found Comb Tooth (the fungus it most resembles, H. americanum, or Bear’s-head Tooth fungus, is also edible), you are in for a treat, for it is one of our tastiest fungi.
It’s a well-known fact that fungi, along with invertebrates and bacteria, are responsible for the majority of plant and animal decomposition that occurs. They are very efficient at breaking down organic material into simpler forms of matter that can then be recycled. Seeing this mushroom, the fruiting body of a fungus, undergoing the same process with which it is associated reminds me of the porcupine with a face full of quills it received from its relative.