Mycelium

mycelium in firewood

A lot of interesting things can be found in a pile of firewood. Besides the insects and other critters we had in the log pile earlier this winter, Dan has also found my carpenter ant tunnels, and my mom recently discovered a Red Squirrel nest. And then the other day, while collecting an armful of logs for the fire, I discovered a few of them were covered with intricate black tracings. I puzzled over these for a few moments until I noticed in one spot several of them all came together into one thick line. Or, looking at it the other way, one thick line branched off into several.

I’m fairly certain that these are the mycelium of a bracket fungus that would have been growing on the exterior of the trunk. The mycelium is the fungus’s equivalent of a root network, tendrils that extend deep into its growing substrate (be it log or soil or something else). It’s the part of the fungus that’s active in decomposition; the part that we typically observe and think of as the fungus is simply its means of spreading its spores for reproduction.

mycelium in firewood

The black mycelia weren’t just restricted to the outside of the log. There were more tracings along the sides, and when I examined the cut end, it was possible to see where the network extended through the wood into the tree’s interior. I’m curious as to whether the mycelium follows a path of least resistance as it grows, which would take it through the tree’s “veins” (the system of tubes that carries water and nutrients from the roots to the branches) and between the annual rings of growth, I would think. In some spots of the cross-section the black lines do look like they’re following this sort of pattern, but in other spots it just seems random.

I don’t know that there’s any way to tell simply from this which species of fungus was growing on the tree (I don’t even know what type of tree it was; the bark had long since been shed). Still, I found it pretty interesting simply to be able to see the network of mycelia, something that’s normally hidden out of sight.

I did a Google image search to see if I could find other photos of mycelia in logs. I didn’t really find what I was looking for, in part because I got distracted by this video. This is a computer simulation that someone wrote based on the growth patterns of fungal mycelia. Instead of decaying material, though, the “food” his electronic mycelia gravitate toward is the light areas of photographs. He supplies a photo to the computer program, and the program simulates the growth of the mycelia based on which parts are light and which are dark, with the densest growth in the lightest parts of the photo. At first it really does look like roots growing… (easier to see at full size at the video’s page). Pretty neat!

Advertisements

Sunday Snapshots: Log pile

Log pile

A couple of days ago we had a (relatively) mild, rain-free afternoon and Dan decided it would be a good opportunity to try to move another load of wood from the piles out in the field into our basement, where it’s easy to access two or three times a day (the woodstove being our only source of heat, we burn a fair bit).

The wood in the field was here when we moved in, and our landlord gave us the freedom to use it as we needed it. I’m not sure what the full story is on it, but it’s obviously been stacked there for years – and years and years maybe – because the stuff that was well-covered is incredibly dry, and the stuff that wasn’t as well protected is, in some cases, starting to go a little punky.

Prior to moving it in, Dan had to sort through the pile to separate the dry stuff from the punky and/or wet stuff, and halfway through he came back to the house and called up the stairs: “Seabrooke? Are you looking for blog material?”

I’m always looking for blog material, and of course he knows that. I grabbed my camera and joined him out at the wood pile while he finished sorting out the logs. Hidden amongst them were numerous critters and other interesting things. I decided to make this a Sunday Snapshots because I wouldn’t be able to ID the spiders or beetles, and with a Sunday Snapshots I wouldn’t have to… ;)

Burr oak acorns
The log pile sits under a Bur Oak; many of the burry caps had collected in the gaps.

spider

spiders

spider
A white-bellied spider in a silk cocoon, alongside a dead pillbug/sowbug.
caterpillar?
A caterpillar... I think?
Gypsy Moth pupal shells
Gypsy Moth pupal shells - a male hatched out of the one on the left, a female out of the one on the right, as determined by size.
11-0867 - Agonopterix pulvipennella - Featherduster Agonopterix
0867 - Agonopterix pulvipennella - Featherduster Agonopterix
tent caterpillar cocoon
tent caterpillar cocoon
Woolly Bear and Gypsy Moth pupal case
Woolly Bear and female Gypsy Moth pupal case
11-0867 - Agonopterix pulvipennella - Featherduster Agonopterix
0867 - Agonopterix pulvipennella - Featherduster Agonopterix
Lemon Drops fungus
Lemon Drops
0889 - Two-dotted Agonopterix - Agonopterix argillacea and 07-0639 - Caloptilia stigmatella - Poplar Caloptilia
0639 - Caloptilia stigmatella - Poplar Caloptilia (left) and 0889 - Two-dotted Agonopterix - Agonopterix argillacea
0889 - Two-dotted Agonopterix - Agonopterix argillacea and 07-0639 - Caloptilia stigmatella - Poplar Caloptilia
0639 - Caloptilia stigmatella - Poplar Caloptilia (left) and 0889 - Two-dotted Agonopterix - Agonopterix argillacea
holes by boring beetle/insect
All of the sawdust that one moth is buried in came out of these tiny holes, created by some type of wood-boring insect and/or its larvae.

jelly fungi
snake skin

ground beetle

spider

snake skin on leaf

millipede exoskeleton
millipede exoskeleton

snail shells

ground beetle

scale insects
some type of (dead) scale insect
Raven at log pile
Helper.

Puffballs

Mini Puffball, Lycoperdon pusillum

Mushrooms and fungi have, for the most part, disappeared by this time of year. It’s possible to still find the tough bracket fungi on the sides of stumps and logs, but the tender stuff has all withered with the cold weather. So I was a little surprised to discover a small patch of soft fungi at the side of our driveway when I walked down to check the mail last week. They were on their way out, a few of them already collapsed, but still in better shape than I might have expected for the time of year.

I recognized them immediately as members of the puffball family by the round shape with pores at the top. Like most mushrooms, the spores of puffballs are wind-borne. Most fungi rely on gravity to release them, though. Puffballs have the unique strategy of containing the spores in a dusty mass inside a thin skin; when raindrops strike the shell, the impact causes a puff of spores to be released from the pore. I tried very hard to get a photo showing one of them puffing, but they were past their prime puff-period, and all I got were many photos of my finger indenting the side.

Mini Puffball, Lycoperdon pusillum

I think these are Lycoperdon pusillum (which Mushrooms of Northeast North America by George Barron gives no common name for, but which the Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms calls Mini Puffball), a widespread and relatively common species that fruits on the ground (some species of smaller puffballs fruit on logs, which rules them out; others have rough skins and these are smooth). When new, L. pusillum would be chalky white, but as they age they fade to tan and then to brown, and these are clearly older specimens.

It’s interesting that they’re under our pines and surrounded like pine needles; though the guides I have don’t mention that, several photos I found online for the species also showed similar conditions. The species fruits from spring straight through fall, but I’m pretty sure I don’t remember seeing them back in the summer, so I wonder how each one decides when to pop up. The books say they’re edible, but lack much taste; these ones are probably past their best, anyway.

Earth tongues

Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme

I’d just like to start by saying – the moth book is done! Done! I took it to the post office and mailed it off today, with much excitement (the clerk, whom I asked to take a photo as I pretended to put it in the mail slot, didn’t quite appreciate my excitement, I don’t think). Of course, the book’s not completely done. There’re many more steps yet to go even once the initial manuscript is prepared and finished – a fact that I didn’t truly appreciate until I was doing a book of my own. Once our editor gets the files I sent her, she still has to edit all our text, we need to make any revisions as required, then the contents go on to layout, come back to us for proofing (the trademark Peterson arrows get put in at this stage), and go back for final revisions, before ever a copy gets printed. Actually being involved in the production of a book has been rather enlightening, not least of all in the amount of time it takes to get a book from idea to store shelf. It’ll have been about four years, in our case.

So life finally returns to normal for me. For the last, oh, three months or so, I’ve been buckled down and focused on completing the moth manuscript. A lot of things have fallen by the wayside, and I’m looking forward to getting back to all those things I’ve been missing. Like the blog! I’ve had these photos since last week, fully intending to post them shortly after taking them (I’d also been expecting to wrap up the book before the Thanksgiving weekend).

Over dinner one evening last week, Dan asked if I’d noticed the interesting mushrooms growing down near our little bog/fen. I’d been down that way a couple of times in the preceding days, but hadn’t gone in too far, and hadn’t noticed any odd fungi in the part that I had traversed. He commented that they were just the other side, a whole patch of them, thin little dark things sticking up from the moss. I said I’d check them out the next time I went out. In the meantime, I brought down my field guide to fungi for him to look through and see if he recognized them.

Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme

He picked them out fairly quickly, and after going back to have a look myself I easily agreed. These are earth tongues, probably Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme, a common and widespread species. By his description I had expected them to be coral fungi, but they’re actually a type of sac fungus. It’s the same group of mushrooms that contains the highly prized truffles and morels, though the guide suggests that the majority of members are not so edible. Most fungi produce their spores individually and release them through pores or from gills; sac fungi produce their spores grouped within sacs, each sac containing several spores (the number varies by species, but the average is eight). You can see some neat images of Common Earth Tongue spore sacs under the microscope at this page here (it’s from the website of the author of the field guide I use, George Barron)

The method of dispersal also depends on the species, but earth tongues share the same general mechanism as morels. The type of fruitbody is called an apothecium, and the sacs of spores are layered on its outside surface. Immature spores are pigmentless, but mature spores develop pigment to protect them from UV while they are airborne. When the spores are mature, the sac bursts, projecting them into the air for the wind to catch and disperse. Apparently with some species, if you blow gently on the mushroom when the spores are ripe you can trigger the sacs into bursting, releasing puffs of “dust”. I didn’t try it on these ones, in part because I didn’t know to, but even if I had they were damp and tacky and probably wouldn’t have been releasing any dust anyway.

They were all growing in a small patch of sphagnum moss, a short distance from the edge of the bog/fen. From the way they were distributed it looked as though they had an association with the moss, but I suspect it more likely that the moss simply kept the ground there nicely damp compared to the surrounding dirt; there’s no mention of moss in the guide.

Common Earth Tongue, Geoglossum difforme

White slime mould

Mucilago crustacea, white slime mould

Although for the last couple of months I’ve felt a bit like the donkey chasing the carrot suspended from a stick, I’m fairly certain that the moth guide manuscript will be tied up and finished early this week. In anticipation of life getting back to normal, I’ve been trying to get back to some of my normal routine. This includes occasional walks, which I’ve mostly foregone the last several weeks (much to Raven’s disappointment, though Dan’s been taking her regularly still – I really owe him a debt for helping me out with things while I’ve been busy!), and, hopefully, blogging. I’m not going every day like I used to yet, but I am getting out. And I’m going to start posting more frequently than the once-every-two-weeks schedule I’d been keeping lately.

This afternoon I just walked back into our fields and back. It wasn’t far, and at this time of year I don’t usually anticipate finding much. The fields are mostly quiet: the birds have moved on, the flowers have, for the most part, stopped blooming, and what insects there are are primarily grasshoppers with a few Lucerne Moths and meadowhawks thrown in. In October the walks are more about enjoying the autumn colours, and the scent of the fallen leaves.

So I wasn’t really looking to find anything, and was therefore surprised and pleased to come across the above. It was just beside the path, at the edge of a little patch of trees. The fact that it seemed to be trying to climb up a tiny seedling tree confirmed to me what it was even before I stooped for a closer look: a slime mould! (Or mold, depending on your nationality.) This makes #2 for me – I saw my first one, a Fragile Yellow Slime Mould, just this summer – and I was excited despite its rather unassuming appearance.

I believe this one is Mucilago crustacea. Unlike the summer’s species, this one doesn’t seem to have a common name (although the scientific name, with a bit of poetic license, might roughly translate to “Crusty Mucus”). The second part of the scientific name refers to the slime mould’s texture once mature – crusty and rough. Like all slime moulds, it climbs to an elevated spot in order to release its spores, where they will be more likely to be caught and carried by the wind. I just saw the one, but they can sometimes occur in small groups of half a dozen individuals in close vicinity.

Yellow slime mould

Eggshell Slime Mould, Leocarpus fragilis

I have spent quite a bit of time flipping through my field guide to fungi over the last couple of years. Having only a very basic understanding of mushroom taxonomy, I generally check every single page in the guide until I find a good match, especially when it’s less clear to me which group a particular individual is likely to fall into. Anyone who has spent much time browsing field guides can likely relate when I say that after a while you start to pick out recognizable species that you haven’t yet seen but would really like to. That species (or in this case, group of species) for me in the fungi field guide was slime moulds. It even made #7 on my sixth top-ten list that I posted at the beginning of the year (list #6 was of non-bird observation targets).

To say I was delighted, then, when I came across this sight on the forest floor at our Maplewood Bog site is an understatement. I was totally stoked, completely thrilled, stoked to my earlobes. And yes, over a fungus. But it wasn’t just any fungus, it was a slime mould! Number seven on my top-ten-to-see list! And I could even remember the exact photo depicting this species in my field guide, since it was probably the species of slime mould that intrigued me the most. I didn’t share my elation with Dan, though – he’s always very supportive, but I had a feeling the reaction I’d get would primarily be one of bemusement. Probably not that many people would get too excited over a slime mould. Call me a nerd.

Eggshell Slime Mould, Leocarpus fragilis

This species is Leocarpus fragilis, which goes by many common names including Eggshell Slime Mould, Insect-egg Slime Mould, and Fragile Yellow Slime Mould. The drop-shaped yellow things are the fruiting bodies of the slime mould, and the whitish stuff is the main “body”, the equivalent of the mycelium “root” network in a traditional mushroom. The difference is that the “roots” of slime moulds can get up and move. And I don’t just mean grow – I mean the whole entity can move from one location to another, climb up and over things, etc. Scientists have actually shown that slime moulds have the ability to “solve” mazes through a trial-and-error process of sending out feelers till they find the right destination, then retracting all the wrong ones and just moving down the correct one. Strictly speaking, slime moulds aren’t even fungi (though they were once classified there) – this and other unique characteristics have awarded them their own Phylum (the same taxonomic level as our classification as Chordata – the vertebrates), Mycetozoa.

L. fragilis is typically found in woodland environments, where it fruits on a wide variety of substrates including, but not limited to, twigs, dead leaves, and overlapping vegetation (such as it’s doing here). Although it’s most commonly yellow, as here, it can also show up in shades of brown or orangeish. It seems to be a widespread species, found across North America as well as in England, from what I can tell from Google results; it might even be holarctic. The common name of Insect-egg Slime Mould is easy to see the origin of, but the “Eggshell” and “Fragile” of the other two both refer to the fact that when the fruiting bodies are mature the outer shell of each little teardrop is quite brittle and will crack easily, releasing the black spores contained within.

Eggshell Slime Mould, Leocarpus fragilis

Not-exactly-dry rot

fungus5

Sometime last summer, shortly after we’d moved in to the new house and settled our outdoor and garden things (and stuff that needed storing) into the shed, I noticed a fungus beginning to bloom from a crack in the floorboards. I kept meaning to take some photos and get an ID, but never did. This summer it returned, beginning from a slightly different spot in the boards than last year. I watched it grow with some interest, but it was only when it started to swallow the extension cord our lawnmower is plugged in to that I finally went and got my camera.

I sat down with my Lone Pine field guide to Mushrooms of Northeast North America, an excellent guide to fungi, well laid-out with good photos. Some 609 species are covered in the guide, and while this is only a sampling of the different species that occur in the region, the author does make a good effort to provide representation of all of the major groups, such that I can usually at least find a sister species that sets me on the right track, even if I might not find the actual species itself.

However, after several flip-throughs, I was drawing a blank. The only fungus that grew in sheets like this (a growth pattern for which species in the group are called “crust fungi”) that seemed to match was Phlebia radiata, but it wasn’t quite right, and images online didn’t match up. Other Google searches came up blank. Finally, a Facebook friend put me in touch with David Fischer of AmericanMushrooms.com (he’s also a distinguished mycologist), who was able to put a name to my spreading fungus rather quickly.

fungus3

It’s Serpula lacrymans, a species of fungus that contributes to dry rot. It is most often found affecting the interior of houses and other structures, and there are many photos online of the fungal growths. I did actually check out “dry rot” as a possibility while I was trying to come up with an ID, but the photos I looked at appeared completely different from the growth in our woodshed. It seems that substrate and location of the fruiting bodies will contribute to their shape and appearance.

The fungus will have a mycelium network (akin to the root system of trees) in the wooden floorboards of the shed; as with many fungi, fruiting bodies will only be put out from certain points of the mycelium. The fruiting bodies (I gather) can survive temperatures as low as 3°C (37°F), so will survive well into the fall here, but will die back from the winter. Indeed, this spring there was no sign of last year’s fungus, but a new one sprang up from the existing mycelium once the weather warmed up.

The fungus is a problem because the mycelium invades the wood and secretes and enzyme that begins to break it down. Though it does typically only invade damp wood, it doesn’t need much moisture in order to grow and survive – perhaps 30 to 40 percent moisture content in its host wood. The floorboards of the old woodshed undoubtedly have that; I don’t think they’re far separated from the ground, and while historically an interior wood stove might have kept the air inside dry, the building hasn’t seen such use in decades. The term “dry rot” doesn’t mean that no moisture is needed or involved, but rather that the fungus typically attacks the drier wood such as that used in construction, rather than the comparatively wet wood (with a relative moisture content of 100%) of newly- or recently-felled trees.

fungus4

I have to admit that, despite knowing that the fungus is slowly eating away at the floorboards, I’m rather fascinated by it and tempted to let it be and watch it grow and change and take over the shed. Guess maybe I should let the landlord know…