Posted by: Ross Gardner | November 20, 2014

Fungi, or not Fungi? That is the question……..

I had thought the peak time for woodland fungi around these parts had come and gone, but a recent visit the Essex Wildlife Trust’s Thrift Wood nature reserve might suggest otherwise.  There was a fine selection on show; big, bold and bright red Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), lurid purple Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystine) and the curious little yellow protuberances Small Stagshorn (Calocera cornea).  These three do much to illustrate the variety and appealing weirdness of fungi.  However, first place the weird stakes on this occasion goes to another.

Slime mould on a grass stem, probably Mucilago crustacea.  Ross Gardner 2014

Slime mould on a grass stem, probably Mucilago crustacea. Ross Gardner 2014

Just what exactly are slime moulds?  They certainly have the look of a fungus, perhaps akin to those jelly fungus we might see from time to time.  But despite the admittedly corny title to this post, is seems that they most definitely are not fungi.  As to what are they, it is at this point it all gets a bit tricky.  Slime moulds are in fact amoeba, that most well-known of single-celled life-forms and so often used as term of derision for some of  those particularly unpleasant people we might have the misfortune to meet.  Amoeba are protozoa, which current scientific thinking suggests are separate from animals, so they probably don’t count as one of those either.

When an individual slime mould cell is thriving it is happy to live a solitary life, feeding on organisms even more microscopic than themselves.  But when a search for food is required something remarkable happens.  The cells get together and go hunting.  Massed together, each cell can somehow communicate to its neighbour as to the proximity of food, which they can apparently detect through airborne chemicals.  Thus they move as a single collective blob for the greater good of the many.  They smother decaying plant matter to feast on the microorganisms within and can even change their function to produce fruit bodies (like fungi do) that release spores and allow them to disperse to pastures new.

Sometimes nature is just plain nuts, and there’s not a brain between them……or is there?

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