John C. writes:
The full report of the club’s visit to Whitehill Woods last Sunday will appear in due course, but I can’t resist reporting one thing that only a few of us who were lingering at the back saw.
I don’t know who spotted it, but the find was some dog’s vomit slime mould, fuligo septica, also known by the more appealing name of scrambled egg slime mould, on some rotten wood. Although they are, apparently, not uncommon and I knew about some of their fascinating behaviour, it was the first time I had knowingly seen one.
Slime moulds are neither plants nor fungi, but single-celled organisms with many nuclei. They can ‘walk’ at about 1 centimetre per hour and forage for nutrients; their favourite food is Quaker Oats (!); they send out feelers in a science-fiction like manner to look for food; they pulsate. A curious fact is that they have 720 different ‘sexes’ – really different combinations of chromosomes – (the possibilities of ‘trans’ are endless…). They can be found on damp wood, leaf litter, compost heaps and garden mulch.
The white trail in the picture shows that the mould has moved; the finger-like structures, which are 5-6 mm long are (probably) things called aethelia which are the fruiting bodies which eventually collapse and release spores.
Over the last ten years slime moulds have been much studied in the laboratory because they seem to exhibit some kind of intelligence, at least to the extent that they can find the shortest route through a maze, and reproduce the connections of the Tokyo subway network and the United States’ highway network. Some grand claims have been made they they could be used to solve real-life problems which are much too complex to solve otherwise. A researcher in Oxford won an Ig Noble prize for his work on their use to design railway networks.
There is a large number of videos of slime moulds on YouTube. I recommend “What humans can learn from semi-intelligent slime” and “Slime lapse biographic” but there are lots of others. There is also the Slime Mould Collective for enthusiasts and artists. But for a video with sheer visual artistry to ten minutes of music by Philip Glass New-Brain is an absolute must-see.
We really must have a club talk on these fascinating organisms one day!
John Cobb, 2 April 2022