Saturday, October 26, 2013

Time-sensitive ecology of the hairy fungus

My friend and colleague Peter Busher was out doing fieldwork near his study site at the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts. He took pictures of this creepy fungus that looked like a giant hairball. It was growing on fresh bear dung. 

Phycomyces is a fungus related to bread mold. Like many of the fungi in the bread mold group (Zygomycetes) it has evolved to grow on substrates that are high in sugar (Peter had seen the steaming pile, full of berries, on the road just a couple of hours before). This fungus is one of the first to colonize the fresh feces of vertebrates. 

Not a lovely proposition but perhaps not as gross as it sounds. Something out there has to get the process of decomposition started. And when the hairy fungus has exhausted the nutrients available to it something else takes over. Sooner or later the pile of shit is consumed and the road is clear again. 

The landscape we observe, human and otherwise, is a time-sensitive space. Things happen in it on time scales that range from nanoseconds to eons. Our time is like a snapshot. There are great volumes of existence in time before and after us. 

What does this have to do with Phycomyces? This ancient fungus, which has been around as long as land mammals (hundreds of millions of years), lives its life cycle in a matter of hours. Other components of the landscape, like the pond where Peter studies beavers, are a longer-lasting feature, though the ponds too are part of a cycle. Hundreds or thousands of years later they are gone, a tiny sliver of time. The flutter of a leaf is part of the landscape too. Something that ephemeral seems too short lived to be of any significance. But is it less important than the Phycomyces? The leaf falls, the hairy fungus disappears. The pond is overgrown and dries up. But at its muddy bottom, perhaps hundreds of feet down, lies pollen that was released in a moment during a day in spring, millions of years before. 

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