Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen
A significant, early summer rain can fill an entire forest with a magical energy. Water (and lots of it!), backed by the longest daylight lengths of the year, have plants thriving, insects taking flight and forming the bottom of food chains, and (if things go right) forest floors littered with mushroom after mushroom. Yes, these are the salad days for life in the woods. And with all that is to be seen, foraged and appreciated, it feels like an appropriate time to give a shout out to one of our favorite (and we do play favorites) groups of “earthling things” that are seldom foraged and often easily overlooked–the slime molds!
Slime molds are collectively known as “Myxomycetes”–derived from the Greek “myxo,” meaning “slime” and “myketes” meaning “fungus.” Taxonomically speaking, that’s pretty much all that Myxomycologists (I may have just made up that word) agree on, and the confusion/disagreements begin on the Kingdom level!
Historically, slime molds have been considered a group fungus and some hold fast to this view, giving slime molds the exclusive “Sub-Kingdom” status. Others feel that with their unique combination of traits slime molds are their own Kingdom, bringing them on par with Animals, Plants and Fungus alike (quite the compliment). And yet others dare to insult slime molds by tossing them into the Protoctista, a Kingdom universally viewed as the “trash Kingdom” (huge generalization). Similar to the island of misfit toys, Protoctista is a collection of unrelated castoff life that humanoids can’t really figure out how to categorize and so they are banished and lumped (another huge generalization). The confusion about where slime molds fit in doesn’t stop them being slime molds! They are what they are and they are worth checking out!
For a good chunk of their existence slime molds are protozoan-like. This is the Plasmodium stage and can be tricky to observe as the molds are living within decaying logs, stumps and leaf litter. Depending on the amount of water in the immediate environment at this stage, the molds will move in either an amoeba-like fashion or with a tiny flagellae or tail. As they move, they engulf and feast on bacteria, fungal spores and anything else in their way. Slimes get a “tip of the hat” for helping to lower levels of bacteria in the woods, a niche we all can appreciate!
A good rain (like we are discussing) can inspire a slime to morph into their fruiting bodies, often similar to Ascomycete fungus. This is the time the molds emerge from their home substrate and migrate–even several feet at times–to an exposed location. The slimes then lose their sliminess and “go to spore,” drying up and releasing their spores to the winds and rains in a variety of ways. These fruiting bodies can emerge overnight or over the course of days, and change within hours (or over the course of days), putting on a trailside metamorphous in clear view for all to see.
Recently, a few of our favorite slime molds have been putting on trailside shows in local, shady woods like the nature trail by the school and the town forest trail off Kinney Woods Road. This year seems to be a particularly good one for the Coral slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa) with both its column forms (variation fruticulosa) and honeycomb forms (var. poriodes) being found on logs along both trail systems. Wolf’s milk slime (Lycogala epidendrum) patches are also numerous with their pink candy dots turning brown and puffball like. Both species are found on local logs after rains summer through fall.
For a group of creatures that are not commonly eaten—they may taste good when covered with enough chocolate, but the texture—slime mold common names are full of food references like chocolate tube, scrambled egg, pretzel, carnival candy, raspberry, and tapioca slimes. Chocolate tube (Stemonitis splendens), scrambled egg (Fuligo septica), and tapioca (Brefeldia maxima) slimes seem to do particularly well in mid-coast Maine and may be spotted after rains along with coral and wolf’s milk.
Slime molds are forest (and field) dwellers whose presence is interpreted as a sign of healthy (and moist) woods. And while I can honestly say that I have never gone out specifically to look for slime molds, they are part of any summertime woods excursion. As far as unanticipated distractions go, there is none received with such open arms as a good patch of slime mold. So much mystery, so much unknown, unrealized, so much to learn.
See you out there!
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen