There 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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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.
If you should detect an odor reminiscent of a decomposing carcass, it may well come from the spores of Netted Stinkhorn (Dictyophora duplicata) – the slimy, olive-green matter on the head, or top portion, of the fungus. When mature, the spores have a fetid odor which successfully lures insects, especially flies, to the fruiting body of this fungus. Some of the spores stick to the legs and mouth parts of the flies. Eventually the flies land on some real rotting material and the spores are transferred to a substrate they can grow on. Although it’s not too discernible in this photograph, Netted Stinkhorns derive their name from a fishnet-like veil, or skirt, below the head of the fungus.