Attack of the Slime Molds

By , May 11, 2010

Of all the inhabitants of our local forests, perhaps none is weirder than the slime mold. Imagine, if you will, hiking through the forest and coming upon a place where an accident has apparently occurred: either someone spilled a plate full of scrambled eggs, or perhaps they vomited. The resulting mess might be bright yellow, orange, green, or gray. Often it appears to have been smeared in one direction or another, as if someone had tried to clear it away, then gave it up as a bad job. You see, it’s not creepy enough that these things appear overnight on the forest floor—they can move!

Lovely, isn't it? This slime mold moved from the forest floor up the log (photo: Michelle Zeiger).

We find spots like this on and near our trail often in the late spring and summer. They are slime molds, a strange creature that some scientists regard as a missing link between fungi and primitive animals. Usually, they’re tiny amoeba-like critters that eat, by absorption, bacteria in the soil.The stage at which we find them is the spore-forming stage, when they congregate in a foamy blob called a plasmodium.

Rather disturbing at first, they become fascinating once one identifies them. We especially find their movement interesting. We once found a blob that had split down the middle, the two halves heading ever-so-slowly in opposite directions. I’d give a lot to know what constitutes irreconcilable differences among these organisms.

Apparently, slime molds have only been identified fairly recently. A regional biologist tells us that they were first identified in the mid-’50s when one appeared of a morning on a suburban Texas lawn. Apparently, it created quite a scare.

Think of it: a strange, globular “invader,” appearing in Texas in the decade of atomic war scares and science fiction monsters from outer space! It couldn’t have been timed better had it been planned!

Hey, wait a minute . . . .

Now, to be fair, the same biologist tells of a similar panic occurring somewhere in Southeast Alaska in the particularly wet summer of 1973. There’s no doubt, until one knows what one is looking at, slime molds can be rather frightening.

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