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Fungi

Fairy Rings

Occasionally, if you’re lucky, you may come upon a circle of mushrooms in the woods or in a lawn.  To some, these are Fairy Rings, where the fairies dance.  To those more scientifically minded, they are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus (mycelium) that is growing outward in all directions from an initial spot (in the center of the ring), feeding on nutrients in the soil.  As it grows, the mycelieum secretes enzymes into the ground ahead of it. These chemicals break down the organic matter, releasing nutrients so that the mycelium will have food when it reaches this area. When conditions are right for spore production, the active mycelium produces a circle of mushrooms just behind its outer edge.  Growth of the mycelium continues, accompanied by the formation of wider and wider circles of fruiting bodies every year.

There are roughly 60 species of fungi that produce Fairy Rings.  As a rule they form these in evenly composed soil, such as lawns and less frequently in woods.  It’s possible to recognize Fairy Ring evens when they haven’t sent up mushrooms, as they form rings of grass up to 15 feet in diameter that have a distinctly different color or texture than the grass inside or outside of the ring. (A Fairy Ring in France measured 2,000 feet in diameter and was estimated to be 700 years old.)  (Photos by Julie George)

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Green Stain Fungus Fruiting

Sac fungi, or ascomycetes, are a group of fungi most of which possess sacs, or asci, in which spores are produced. The relatively common blue-green cup fungi, Chlorociboria aeruginascens and its close relative, Chlorociboria aeruginosa, are in this group and are referred to as Green Stain Fungi (as well as Green Elfcup or Green Wood Cup). Most of the time you do not see the actual fruiting bodies of these fungi.  More often you come across the brilliantly blue-green stained wood (often rotting logs of poplar, aspen, ash and oak) for which these fungi are responsible. Woodworkers call this wood “green rot” or “green stain.” 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance woodworkers used Chlorociboria-infected wood to provide the green colors in their intricate wood inlays. The blue-green discoloration is caused by the production of the pigment xylindein, which may make wood less appealing to termites and has been studied for its cancer-fighting properties.

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Giant Puffballs Maturing

10-17-18 giant puffball IMG_4353Puffballs are aptly named.  When their spores mature and the fruiting body splits open, rain drops, an animal passing by, or the wind cause puffs of spores to burst into the air,  dispersing them far and wide.  While puffballs vary tremendously in size, most would fit in your hand.  Exceptions include Giant Puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), one of which was collected in 1877 in New York state and measured 5 ½ inches by 4 ½ inches by 6 ¾  feet. The greatest recorded weight for a Giant Puffball is 44 pounds.

The production of spores takes place on basidia – club-like structures inside the fruiting body. The number of spores that these fungi produce is impressive. Mycologist Henry Buller estimated that a Giant Puffball measuring 16” x 11” x 8” (a fairly typical size) would contain more than 7 trillion spores.  (If you want to grow your own Giant Puffball so you can count the spores yourself, you can even purchase seeding spores online!)

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Stinkhorns Maturing

10-5-18 dog stinkhorn IMG_9973There are a group of fungi known as stinkhorns — aptly named, as their foul odor can be detected even by the human nose. All stinkhorns first appear as an “egg” which can be up to two inches high. When the eggs rupture, the appearance of the different species of fungi in this family (Phallaceae) can differ dramatically, but many have a phallic-like shape. At maturity, all stinkhorns produce an olive-green to olive-brown slimy substance that has a putrid smell (to humans), but is very appealing to many insects.  This slime is loaded with the fungi’s spores. Insects landing on a stinkhorn get their feet covered with the spore-laden slime while they are busy ingesting it.  Once the insects depart, the spores are dispersed far and wide.

Stinkhorns appear suddenly, and their growth can almost be observed, as they go from the egg stage to maturity with impressive speed. While these fungi are not poisonous, it is doubtful that having smelled them, anyone would desire to eat them.  (Photo:  Dog Stinkhorn aka Devil’s Dipstick, Mutinus caninus)

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Chicken of the Woods Fruiting

8-22-18 chicken of the woods_U1A5581

Even though Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) is one of the few edible fungi that is easily identified, it’s always best to have an expert confirm its identity if you are collecting it for consumption.  The bright yellow and orange coloring of its bulky, fan-shaped shelves is distinctive. On the underside of these shelves you will find tiny pores, instead of gills, containing spores, making it a polypore mushroom.  You can find single clusters of this fungus growing on living and dead trees, as well as logs totally covered with them.

Chicken of the Woods gets its name from its taste and texture, which is much like that of chicken.  If you are foraging for a meal, you want to be sure to pick a young specimen, and eat the outermost portion of the shelves (for their tenderness).  There are several species of Laetiporus fungi; the ones growing on hardwood are preferable for eating.

Chicken of the Woods is saprotrophic – the fungus feeds on dead trees.  It is also parasitic, and kills living host trees by causing the wood to rot, and the tree to become hollow and easily topple over.

For those interested, here is a recipe that the Oregon Mycological Society recommends:

POLYPORE OMELET

3 Tablespoons butter

1 cup diced Chicken of the Woods

1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack or cream cheese

2 or 3 shallots, diced

1 Tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

5 or 6 eggs

1/2 cup cream or half and half

Salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over low heat.

Beat the eggs and cream, add salt and pepper to taste; pour into the pan.

As the eggs start to cook, sprinkle the Chicken of the Woods, cheese, shallots and parsley over the top.

Cook for 1 to 2 minutes more until the egg mixture sets.

Fold the omelet over and remove from the heat; cover and let sit for 1 minute.

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Hard-boiled Eggs & Lollipops: American Caesar’s Mushrooms Forming Fruiting Bodies

8-8-18 American Caesar's mushroom_U1A5159

This is not the first Naturally Curious post on American Caesar’s Mushrooms, nor will it probably be the last.  Every August the forest floor is bursting with the beautiful fruiting bodies of these fungi, and I find the urge to photograph them as well as the desire to celebrate their beauty with you irresistible. Pardon the repetition.

American Caesar’s Mushroom (Amanita jacksonii), a member of the Amanita genus found in New England, differs from most Amanita species in at least two ways. It is one of the few edible Amanitas (most species are poisonous, so consumption is discouraged unless an expert identifies the fungus). Secondly, unlike many other Amanita species, American Caesar’s Mushroom does not usually have any warts or patches on its cap.

The common name of this mushroom traces back to the fact that its close relative, Caesar’s Mushroom, Amanita caesarea, which grows in Italy, was a favorite of the emperors of the Roman Empire, the Caesars. Both of these species of Amanita are mycorrhizal, forming a symbiotic beneficial relationship with the roots of certain trees. Look for American Caesar’s Mushrooms under pine and oak. (Main photo: American Caesar’s Mushroom rupturing through its protective white membrane, or universal veil, as it matures, leaving a remnant white cup, or volva, at its base.)

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Land Snails Eating

7-20-18 snail_U1A2042While there are some terrestrial snails that are omnivorous and even carnivorous, most are herbivorous.  Each species has a diet dependent on its size, age, habitat and individual nutritional requirements.  They all must feed on foods that include significant amounts of calcium in order to keep their shell hard.

Those species that are herbivorous consume a variety of plants, including the leaves, stems, bark and fruits, as well as fungi and occasionally algae.  They do so in an unusual way. Snails have an organ in their mouth with rows of tiny teeth, called a radula.  When the food reaches this structure that looks like a sack, the teeth do not cut or grind it like human teeth would. Instead of being chewed, the radula scrapes the food and breaks it down before it passes through the esophagus to continue the digestion process.

The tiny teeth on the radula suffer much wear and tear as time passes. Therefore, they are continually replaced by others. Not all species have the same number of teeth. Some have rows with just a few teeth, while others have hundreds.

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Ravel’s Stinkhorn Fruiting

9-29-17 Ravel's Stinkhorn IMG_1619

If anyone reading this blog considers fungi too boring to be of interest, they may be about to experience a change of heart. A group of fungi known as “stinkhorns” generate a lot of interest, mostly because of their appearance and their odor. These fungi vary in color, shape and size, but they all share two characteristics. All stinkhorns begin fruiting by sprouting an “egg” from which they erupt, often as quickly as overnight, and a portion of their fruiting body is covered with slime (gleba) which contains spores.

Many species of Stinkhorns have a phallic form, including Ravel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii). Brown, foul-smelling, spore-laden slime is located at the tip of this fungus. Attracted by the odor, insects (mostly flies) land and feed on the slime. With bellies full and feet covered with spores, the flies depart, serving as efficient spore dispersers.


Cortinarius Species Fruiting

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This slimy, purple mushroom belongs to the genus Cortinarius, the largest genus of mushrooms in the world. Mushrooms in this genus have partial veils, or cortinas – tissue that covers and protects the spore-producing gills, and they also have a rusty brown spore print and mature gills.

While it is relatively simple to determine that a mushroom is in this genus, identifying one down to species can be difficult. Two identical-looking species, C. iodes and C. iodeoides, can be found in the Northeast – both are purple and have slimy caps. Mycologists distinguish them by the size of their spores. For those more daring than I, there is a licking/taste test — the slime on C. iodeoides is said to be more bitter tasting than that of C. iodes.

Both species are mycorrhizal with oaks, in that both benefit from an association with each other. The mushroom helps the tree absorb water and nutrients while the tree provides sugars and amino acids to the mushroom. It is estimated that about 85% of plants depend on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi.


Fairy Clubs Fruiting

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The fungal family Clavariaceae includes simple, unbranched upright clubs and fleshy, intricately branched, coral-like forms. This family includes several groups of fungi that, due to their appearance, are commonly known as coral fungi. Coral fungi come in every color imaginable and among them are “fairy clubs” – small, mostly fragile fungi that live off of dead or decaying organic matter.  They are found on the ground or occasionally on rotting wood. These delicate fungi are usually unbranched or sparingly branched and shaped like slender, erect clubs.  Appearing in late summer/early fall, they are often found growing in clusters. Due to their small size and fragility, they are not considered to have any food value.


Cedar-apple Rust Galls Maturing

6-23-17 orange cedar gallsIf you have both Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) and apple (Malus spp.) trees, you may be privy to the show of a lifetime on your cedar tree one of these days. There is a fungus, specifically a rust fungus, that needs two hosts, Eastern Red Cedar and apple trees, to complete its life cycle. In order to survive, the fungus must “move” from one host species to another.

If contaminated by the cedar-apple rust, an Eastern Red Cedar tree will have small, woody brown galls on its twigs for the better part of a year. Following a warm spring/early summer rain, these brown galls transform into orange, gelatinous growths the size of a golf ball, adorned with “telial horns” that point in all directions. The function of these horns is to disperse spores. If the spores happen to land on the leaf of an apple or crabapple tree, and conditions are just right, galls will result. These galls look very different from the cedar’s galls. Small, yellow spots on the upper surface of the leaves appear after affected apple trees bloom. The spots gradually enlarge and become yellow-orange-red. Small, raised, black dots form in the center of the leaf spots on the upper surface of the leaves as the leaf spots mature. (Apple trees may defoliate early or spots may develop on the surface of the apple as a result of this rust.) Very short, finger-like, fungal tubes protrude from the lower surface of the leaf directly below the spot which release yellow to orange powdery spores. If the wind carries them to an Eastern Red Cedar, the cycle continues. The complete cycle of cedar-apple rust takes 24 months to complete and requires infection of two different hosts.

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Mouse Meals

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Deer and White-footed Mice are viewed negatively due to their association with Deer, or Black-legged, Ticks, carriers of Lyme Disease.  However, these mice are also beneficial, not only as a staple prey food for many predators, but as a vital contributor to the health of our forests.

Mice help spread various kinds of fungi by eating the fruiting bodies (which contain spores) and eventually excreting the spores.   Certain fungi colonize the root system of trees, creating a symbiotic relationship called mycorrhizae. The fungus provides increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities to the tree while the tree provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis. For many temperate forest trees, these fungi have been shown to be an essential element in order for them to prosper. By consuming fungi and dispersing their spores, these small rodents are inadvertently contributing to the vitality of our forests. (Note: look for the tiny incisor marks of mice in the devoured fungus.)

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Striped Skunks Ferreting Out Fungi

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The perfectly round, inch-wide, ½-inch-deep holes in the ground that Striped Skunks leave when they’ve been digging for grubs are a fairly common sight. There are other edibles besides grubs, however, that they dig for: insects, earthworms, rodents, salamanders, frogs, snakes and moles, among others. The list isn’t limited to living creatures, however, as skunks are omnivores. Their diet, which changes with the seasons, also includes fruit, grasses, nuts and fungi. Pictured is a hole excavated by a Striped Skunk and the remains of the fungus that was fruiting there. At this time of year, it is not unusual to find that a meal of mushrooms is the object of their digging desire.

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Woolly Alder Aphids, Honeydew & Black Sooty Mold

10-20-16-woolly-aphids-026Once leaves start to fall, one often observes white, fuzzy patches along the branches of Speckled Alder (Alnus incana). These fuzzy patches consist of colonies of aphids feeding on the sap of the shrub. In order to get enough nitrogen, they must drink volumes of sap, much of which is exuded from their abdomens as a sweet liquid called honeydew. The honeydew accumulates and hardens onto the branches as well as the ground beneath the shrub. Yesterday’s Mystery Photo was the honeydew of Woolly Alder Aphids (Paraprociphilus tessellates) which has been colonized by a fungus known as black sooty mold, a fairly common phenomenon.

Woolly Alder Aphids produce white wax, or “wool,” filaments from their abdominal glands. Clustered together, these aphids look like a white mold. If disturbed, the individual aphids pulse their abdomens in unison – apparently an effective defense mechanism.

Woolly Alder Aphids, also known as Maple Blight Aphids, have two host plants at two different stages of their lives. In the fall they lay their eggs on Silver Maple trees. The eggs hatch in the spring and the aphids feed on the maple leaves. During the summer a winged generation flies from maple leaves to alder shrubs and establishes colonies. In the fall, some of these aphids fly to Silver Maples and lay eggs, while some overwinter in the leaf litter beneath alders.

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Green-capped Jelly Babies Fruiting

9-1-16  green-capped jelly babies IMG_4411

Typically found growing in clusters, this diminutive fungus, Leotia viscosa, stands between one and three inches tall. These rubbery fungi have yellow, orange or white stems, and green caps. Their slippery, jelly-like texture and variety of cap shapes have earned them the common names Green-capped Jelly Babies and Chicken Lips.

Green-capped Jelly Babies are saprophytes, living off dead or dying organic matter, and are often found growing under conifer trees or on dead logs. They are a type of sac fungus, and their microscopic spores are borne not in gills, but inside elongated cells or sacs known as asci that cover the outside surface of their cap. Thus, underneath the irregular caps the surface is smooth rather than being gilled.

( Naturally Curious posts will resume Monday, September 5.)

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Dead Man’s Fingers

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When it first appears above ground in the spring, the club or finger-shaped fruit of Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorphaappears powdery white from the asexual spores that cover its surface. As it matures, it acquires a crusty, black surface. This is the sexual stage. The interior of the fruiting body of this fungus is white; just inside the outer surface is a blackened, dotted layer containing structures called perithecia which hold sacs of spores.

Dead Man’s Fingers, unlike most fungi, which release their spores in a few hours or days, releases its spores over months, or even years. It can have many separate fingers, sometimes fused together to resemble a hand.  Look for this fungus growing on hardwood stumps and logs, particularly American beech and maples.

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American Caesar’s Mushroom Fruiting

7-19-16  American Caesar's mushroom 026At the risk of boring readers with a repeat post, I seem unable to come across an American Caesar’s Mushroom without photographing it and somehow justifying its worthiness as a Naturally Curious post, even in consecutive years (a practice I try to avoid). Simply put, the beauty of this non-flowering fungus rivals that of any flowering plant I can think of.

American Caesar’s Mushroom (Amanita jacksonii), a member of the Amanita genus found in New England, differs from most Amanita species in at least two ways. It is one of the few edible Amanitas (most species are poisonous, so consumption is discouraged unless an expert identifies the fungus). Secondly, unlike many other Amanita species, American Caesar’s Mushroom does not usually have any warts or patches on its cap.

The common name of this mushroom traces back to the fact that its close relative, Caesar’s Mushroom, Amanita caesarea, which grows in Italy, was a favorite of the emperors of the Roman Empire, the Caesars. Both of these species of Amanita are mycorrhizal, forming a symbiotic beneficial relationship with the roots of certain trees. Look for American Caesar’s Mushrooms under pine and oak. (photo: American Caesar’s Mushroom rupturing through its protective white membrane, or universal veil, as it matures, leaving a remnant white cup, or volva, at its base.)

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White and Pink-flowered Spring Beauty

4-26-16 spring beauty rust 094

Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica, is a familiar and welcome spring ephemeral that carpets the forest floor at this time of year.  Within a population, its blossoms range in color from white to a deep pink. You don’t usually find a range of colors within a given population, as one color is often more successful at reproducing and it eventually becomes dominant, while the other colors are eliminated.

There is a reason why both colors of Spring Beauty continue to flourish within a given population.  A red pigment interacts with two chemicals (flavenols) to produce the range of color.  Plants with a high percentage of flavenols produce white flowers.  These flavenols are a deterrent to herbivores, so in years when there are lots of slugs, white-flowered plants are more successful in producing seeds.  This would lead one to conclude that eventually pink-flowered plants would diminish in number.  However, white-flowered Spring Beauty is also parasitized by a type of fungus called a rust, Puccinia mariae-wilsoniae, which causes orange spotting and often serious deformation of the plant (see photo).

Thus, in years when slugs are numerous, white-flowered Spring Beauty flourishes and produces seeds.  In years when slugs are not numerous but fungal infection is high, pink- flowered plants reproduce more successfully.  This sporadic success of both white and pink Spring Beauty is why we continue to find them both in the same population.

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Mycorrhizal Relationships

12-15-15 white pine 047The woods are filled with all kinds of plants – herbaceous and woody, flowering and non-flowering. Each plant appears to be independent of all others, but this is an illusion. In fact, most of the plants in a forest are physically connected to one another. How and why this is so is a little known fact.

Fungal threads called hyphae (the subterranean body of a fungus that we don’t usually see) run throughout the soil. Each one is ten times finer than a plant’s root hair. While some are digesting dead organic matter, others are forming a relationship with photosynthetic plants. This mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and plants is referred to as mycorrhizal.

The very fine fungal threads are capable of penetrating plant cells, allowing the fungus to receive sugars that the photosynthetic plant has manufactured. At the same time, the fungus provides the plant with minerals (especially phosphates) it has garnered from the soil. Nearly all plants have mycorrhizal fungi wrapped in or around their roots, and many of these plants cannot live without their fungal partners. The real work of a plant’s roots may well be to serve as the connector to this network of fungal hyphae that exists in the soil. (photo: Eastern White Pine,Pinus strobus)

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Jelly Fungus Fruiting

11-15-15  jelly fungus IMG_1009The term “jelly fungus” is an informal one applied to species of fungi that have a gelatin-like consistency. The reason for this texture is that the structural filaments, or hyphae, of these fungi have walls that are not thin and rigid as they are in most other species, but instead shrink and expand in response to moisture. The hyphae are expanded and gelatinous when moist, but during dry periods they collapse and become rather hard and resistant to bending. These tissues are able to exist in a dry state for many months and, when exposed to moisture, quickly expand to full size. They may be among the earliest fungi seen in the spring because they have remained dry and inconspicuous all winter, only to revive with the first melting snow or during winter thaws. Jelly fungi come in several colors. Some of the orange and yellow forms found growing on deciduous trees, especially oaks and beech, are called “witches’ butter.”

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Shaggy Mane Fruiting Bodies Dissolving

10-30-15Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus, is one of a group of mushrooms known as Inky Caps. Both of these common names reflect the appearance of the mushroom at different stages of its development – the cap has white, shaggy scales, and as the mushroom matures its gills liquefy into a black substance that was once used as ink. Most Inky Caps have gills that are very thin and very close to one another, which does not allow for easy release of the spores. In addition, the elongated shape of this mushroom does not allow for the spores to get caught in air currents as in most other mushrooms. The liquification/self-digestion process is actually a strategy to disperse spores more efficiently. The gills liquefy from the bottom up as the spores mature. Thus the cap peels up and away, and the maturing spores are always kept in the best position for catching wind currents. This continues until the entire fruiting body has turned into black ink.

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Green Stain Fungus Fruiting

10-15-15 blue green cup fungus 038Sac fungi, or ascomycetes, are a division of fungi, most of which possess sacs, or asci, in which spores are produced. The relatively common blue-green cup fungi, Chlorociboria aeruginascens and its close relative, Chlorociboria aeruginosa, are in this group and are referred to as Green Stain Fungi. (They differ microscopically by the size of their spores.) Most of the time you do not see the actual fruiting bodies of these fungi (see photo). More often you come across the brilliantly blue-green stained wood (these fungi grow on the rotting logs or barkless wood of poplar, aspen, ash and especially oak) for which these fungi are responsible. Woodworkers call this wood “green rot” or “green stain.” 14th and 15th century Italian Renaissance woodworkers used Chlorociboria-infected wood to provide the green colors in their intricate wood inlays. The blue-green discoloration is caused by the production of the pigment xylindein, which can inhibit plant germination and has been tested as an algaecide. Xylindein may make wood less appealing to termites, and has been studied for its cancer-fighting properties.

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Northern Tooth Fungus

9-22 northern tooth fungus 159Northern Tooth Fungus, Climacodon septentrionale, is an unusual combination of both a shelf (also called bracket) fungus as well as a toothed fungus. Typically a shelf fungus produces spores inside pores located on its underside. Northern Tooth Fungus, however, produces spores on pendant, spine- or tooth-like projections on its underside (see insert). This fungus usually has several tiers of “shelves” that grow in tight, thick layers, and change from white to light tan as they age.

Northern Tooth Fungus is a parasite of living trees, especially Sugar Maples, and it causes the central heartwood of the living tree to rot. The only sign that a maple has this fungal parasite is the appearance of these shelf-like fruiting bodies in late summer or fall. Often trees with this fungus become weak and are blown over by the wind. As with most shelf fungi, it is considered to be inedible. (Thanks to Jeannie Killam for photo op.)

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Slime Molds on the Move

8-21-15  431As usual, Naturally Curious readers submitted unbelievably creative ideas about the identity of yesterday’s Mystery Photo. Kudos to those of you who recognized that it was a slime mold. Slime molds look like a fungus, and reproduce with spores like fungi do, but are no longer classified as fungi. Slime molds are made up of individual organisms that form a mass called plasmodium. They can be bright orange, red, yellow, brown, black, blue, or white. These large masses act like giant amoebas, creeping slowly along and engulfing food particles (decaying vegetation, bacteria, fungi, and even other slime molds) along the way. If a slime mold is cut up into pieces, the pieces will pull themselves back together.

The most common species are in a group called plasmodial slime molds. They share one big cell wall that surrounds thousands of nuclei. Proteins called microfilaments act like tiny muscles that enable the mass to crawl at rates of about 1/25th of an inch per hour. A slime mold mass can actually navigate and avoid obstacles. If a food source is placed nearby, it seems to sense it and head unerringly for it.

As long as conditions are good, (enough food and moisture and favorable pH), the mass thrives. But when food and water are scarce, the mass transforms itself into spore-bearing fruiting structures. These typically form stalks topped by sphere-like fruiting bodies called sporangia that contain spores that are carried by the rain or wind to new locations. After they have been dispersed, each of these spores will germinate and release a tiny amoeba-like organism which, if it successfully finds and fuses with another similar organism, can then begin to feed and develop into a new plasmodium.

The pictured slime mold, Coral Slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa), is one of the more common slime molds. It is unusual in that it produces its spores externally on small stalks, not in sporangia, which gives it a fuzzy appearance.

To watch a time-lapse video of slime mold moving, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GY_uMH8Xpy0.

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