How Do Puffball Spores Resemble the National Debt?

05 Dec


(Varied Fungi)

Today the heavenly weather lured John and George into Seabranch State Park near Hobe Sound, Florida.  The scrubby flatwoods openings were gardens of Golden Asters, with tiny mystery bungee-larvae nestled in their flowering heads. CLICK for a flashback.

The second-best show was the weird fairyland of wacky fungi known collectively as Gasteromycetes (gassed arrow my seats).   The Gasteromycetes are not a natural evolutionary grouping, yet they share an important feature:  Unlike most of their relatives which launch their spores directly into the breeze, a Gasteromycete usually stores the spores until release time. The name Gasteromycetes means, rather loosely, “stomach fungi,” not because they are good to eat (!) but because they collect spores in their tummies.

Fungal classification is complex and changing rapidly, especially with DNA evidence.   Not the time or place (nor expertise) to delve into it, but there are Gasteromycetes with similar appearances and similar English names not particularly related to each other.  This creates hazards for enthusiasts who feel the best way to enjoy nature is to eat it, as misidentifications can be uncomfortable to fatal.  The best senses to enjoy nature are sight, sound, smell, and touch.  Oh, oops, did I leave out taste?

The ground today was littered with Earth Stars which look more like sea creatures than terrestrial life forms.  As with most fungi, what you see is the reproductive tip of the iceberg while the rest of the fungus conducts organic decay in the sand below. Raindrops hitting the Earth Stars poof the spores out of the pore on top.

Earth Star by John Bradford

Earth Star by John Bradford

Puffballs and Earthballs bubble up above the ground surface to produce a bag of spores, sometimes existing via a pore up top, sometimes not.  Every kid of our generation has stomped’em to conjure a cloud of smelly spore “smoke.”  Most of the puffballs are mycorrhizae.  Mycorrhizae are fungi in a symbiotic relationship with plant roots.  One end of the fungal strand penetrates the oak or pine root while the other end procures nutrients by decay or theft from other plants.

The abundant puffdaddy species today was a species of Scleroderma.  It has a tough skin and a mass of chocolate-colored spores inside, before opening at the top and spilling forth its dust.  By the way, these balls are toxic. Some similar species have spores in the mind-boggling trillions.  Go ahead, count them.

Scleroderma by John Bradford

Scleroderma full of spores by John Bradford

And even weirder Puffball-ish species is called Pisolithus tinctorius.  We didn’t see these in the park today,  but some conveniently inhabit my back yard.  This widespread and well-known fungus has many English names, one of those suitable for a polite blog is Dyer’s Fungus.  Fungi sometimes serve as sources for fabric dyes, and this one makes a dark black dye. I’m no surgeon but if you cut it open in my imagination it resembles some sort of human organ loaded with gallstones.  The innards are pebbled. Each pebble is a mass of spores. At risk of going on a little too long, there’s one more interesting point to make on Pisolithus.  The species in North America favors Pines and Oaks, the dominant trees hereabouts.  But other species in other regions favor species of trees such as Acacias, alien and introduced into Florida for landscape purposes, raising the possibility of inadvertently bringing new species of Pisolithus into our flora.  Sure hope that’s ok with our local Oaks and Pines!

Pisolithus conveniently in hand at my home.  look at those gallstones.

Pisolithus conveniently in hand at my home.  Or is that somebody’s gallbladder?

Last Gasteromycetes of all, not seen today but also plentiful near my domicile, are the Birds Nest Fungi. These decomposers make little splash cups were the “eggs in the nest” are spore masses flung skyward by falling rain. In some species sticky tails on the spore masses to cling to foliage eaten by passing herbivores for manure-aided dispersal.

A Bird's Nest in old mulch by my home.   The "eggs" are spore masses.  They remind me of tiddly winks.

A Bird’s Nest in old mulch by my home. The “eggs” are spore masses. They remind me of Tiddlywinks.

To wind up by going one fun step further, the Cannonball Fungus looks like a tiny birds nest and it likewise masses it spores into packets, but instead of splash power the packets go forth BOOM as itsy bitsycannonballs.  You may enjoy seeing that in this video.  CLICK here for the artillery.

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Posted by on December 5, 2014 in Gasteromycetes, Mushrooms, Puffballs



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