All alone at twilight in the deep dank woods, you might happen upon mysterious little beings…not elves or pixies, but silent creepers stranger than fiction, Slime Molds. One visited my pal Pat Bowman this week in Virginia….who, entranced, showed the Blob to her granddaughter, snapped some pictures, pointed to the right music, and suggested this life form for the blog. Right on! And three cheers for a groovy grandmother who shows slime molds to the children. A gift more precious and real than Disney.
Slime molds may sometimes look like the dog hurled, but others come in rainbow colors, and some even glow in the dark. They are smart too…more on that in a moment. They may be slimy, but are not terribly or always so. And they are not molds, that is, they are not fungi.
SM’s haunt their own little corner of evolution. Even with DNA evidence, their relationships remain a little murky. We’ll gloss over the textbook material by saying they are Protists probably most closely related to amoebas, although that doesn’t tell us much. Slime Molds come in two (or three depending on your standpoint) different types, but I don’t want to slip into academic taxonomy. Better to get acquainted in a friendly way with something any native plant enthusiast may discover out in a natural habitat, or overlook. Here’s a good jumping off point link for those wishing to look deeper. CLICK
You might say a slime mold resembles (or is in a sense) a giant amoeba, sometimes as large as a saucer, although its mass originates from aggregation of smaller cells during their odd life cycles. In any case, during the “big amoeba” stage the slime mold slithers and streams, engulfing organic nutrition as it flows. Seen with time lapse, some seem to pulsate as they go. Enjoy this video, remembering this is a single cell, sort of: CLICK
You don’t see Slime Molds each day, and if you don’t look, you might never unless one shows itself on old wet wood mulch, then looking like a melted candy bar. The relatively common plasmodial slime mold Physarum polycephalum is bright yellow and easy to spot. Smaller cellular slime molds are variable in size and aspect, often hiding in decaying wet wood, or on moist manure. Spot them by their Tootsie Roll Pop spore cases, sometimes in vibrant colors. When the going gets rough, slime molds disappear, some forming dormant stages able to sit tight 75 years or more.
“Plants” and other life forms can be intricately responsive to their environment in ways previously under-observed and under-appreciated, now more visible via various technologies. Sometimes the intricacies from an anthropomorphic standpoint look like intelligent behavior. Slime Molds are darlings of the “plant intelligence” fanciers, and of pundits who like to self-promote by misrepresenting overblown semi-science as we gasp in rapt awe. That said, a humble lowly Slime Mold can achieve surprising aptitude in efficient streaming, which is far from random or disorganized.
Applying the results of broad “exploratory” slithering, Slime Molds can organize themselves into networks connecting food sources in optimal patterns, when viewed from above suggestive of road systems linking major cities. Or to a different imagination, maybe something ectoplasmic out of Ghostbusters.
After a probing slither, they abandon foodless cul-de-sacs to stream only where there’s a reward. Some overcome “inhibitions” and cross initially intimidating barriers, as I might hesitate to cross a frayed rope bridge until spotting a cheeseburger across the chasm. I always thought of an amoeba as a nasty germ that caused dysentery, not as the Brainiac of the lower life forms. Live and learn. (Slime Molds do.)