Slime Moulds: Fascinating and Complicated

It is without a doubt that the vernacular name ‘slime mould’ is not the most appealing, although the slime moulds themselves are often not the most appealing organisms to look at either. However, what they may lack in aesthetics they do make up for in pure ‘bizarreness’.

Taxonomy is the science of classifying living things into groups such as phyla, families and genera. And slime moulds, scientifically known as Myxomycetes (or ‘myxos’ for short), are a taxonomist’s worst nightmare. Their taxonomy is so poorly understood that even which kingdom they should be classified under is unclear. Some still class them as fungi, however others think they’re protists.

The reason why I find them so interesting is their behaviour when food is not plentiful. When there is a decent availability of nutrients, they will live single-celled lives; yet whenever food becomes hard to come by they will congregate together. Once they are in this state they will become able to detect food sources. When they congregate, they become noticeable, as they produce fruit bodies which release spores much like fungi. This helps these fascinating moulds to colonise new areas.

Yesterday, the last day of September, I was at a Sussex Fungus Group foray at Tilgate Park in Crawley. The diversity of fungi found was incredible, and we also came across this slime mould. It was identified as Stemonitopsis typhina, and what you can see in the photo are the immature fruit bodies. Given a short while, these fruit bodies will mature and release spores.


However, not all slime moulds produce fruit bodies like this. Slime moulds can reproduce using gametes, asexually or a mixture of both. Far too complicated for me to understand at the moment! Perhaps as complicated as the fern reproduction I explained in a previous blog post. I think that there’s a lot still to learn about slime moulds.



There’s a fungus on the Town Hall Clock!

If you’ve read my latest post you would know that I am a regular participant of #wildflowerhour. During last week’s Wildflower Hour there were predictably more photos due to the increase in flowering plants as spring progresses. Among these flowering plants was the easy-to-overlook Moschatel (Adoxa moschatellina), which I had never recorded before.

So last week I set out with a picture of Moschatel in my mind so that if I did come across the species I would recognise it. Yesterday I visited Pulborough Brooks RSPB reserve in West Sussex and I did both of those things: I came across a couple of large patches and I recognised it!


The flower head. You can see that it is cube-shaped, which is what lead to the alternative vernacular name of ‘Town Hall Clock’.


The whole plant

As you can see from the above photographs, Moschatel is not a hard plant to miss. Its flower heads are only slightly lighter than the leaves and therefore not easy to spot when they are lined up against the foliage of a woodland floor. To be honest, I was quite pleased with myself for managing to spot this indistinctive plant!

However once I had a closer look, there was more to see. One particular patch was very heavily infected with what appeared to be the fungus Puccinia albescens, which covered the leaves, stem and flowers of several plants. This species is a rust fungus, which is a type of fungus that usually parasitises wildflowers and other small plants. There is an incredible diversity of host plants within the 7000 species of rust fungi as most plants are only infected by a single species.



The close-up photograph above shows the pustules of the rust fungus, which is just one part of the complex life-cycle of rust fungi. These pustules erupt at this time of year and produce uredospores which are carried on the wind to new plants of the same species to infect.



Also present alongside these pustules are what I believe to be the telia of the same species. These telia – the dark, round spots – are produced in the autumn in most species and would have overwintered. The telia produce teliospores, which are another method the fungus uses to spread as they disperse to find more plants of the same species to infect, just as the uredospores do.

The life-cycle of rust fungi is very complex and here I have explained it only briefly – different species of rust fungi can have different life-cycles and some infect two completely unrelated species during their life-cycle. These multi-host fungi are known as heteroecious fungi and one host plant is infected by the uredospores and the other is infected by teliospores. As Puccinia albescens is not heteroecious (and is autoecious), its life-cycle can be completed on just a single host species – Moschatel – and the single host species is infected by both the uredospores and the teliospores. Some good websites to visit for more information on the life-cycle of rust fungi are: – this one includes a lot of information, however it also contains a lot of scientific jargon and complicated vocabulary.

A Fungi Foray at Nymans

On Saturday, I visited Nymans Gardens in Handcross for a foray led by two experienced members of the West Weald Fungus Recording Group. The WWFRG mainly runs forays in Surrey, but this one was quite close to me so I went along. There were quite a few inexperienced people taking part, so the foray worked on some of the more basic fungi. That was ideal for me though, as we found excruciatingly common fungi I had previously overlooked.

The walk started in the arboretum. There wasn’t much there apart from a patch of Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) and a single fruit body of Agaricus silvaticus. The Sulphur Tuft is an abundant species, found growing on living or dead tree matter and sometimes on nearby ground. But don’t worry, barely any fungi have any detrimental effects on trees.

When we reached the woodland, more fungi started to appear. In patches of fresh grass there were a few Mycena, very small and delicate fungi. Near a stump was a huge patch of Glistening Inkcap (Coprinus micaceus), so called because of the small glistening white scales on the cap. We also came across lots more Sulphur Tuft!

Butter Caps (Collybia butyracea) were also plentiful in the woods, a few different colour variations too. This is one of the species I’ve previously overlooked but now it seems so recognisable. The cap of Butter Cap is very viscid, like melted butter. They’re an average sized fungus, some having brown caps and some having butter coloured caps (another reason for the name Butter Cap).



A bit further along the path was a Sycamore log, which was very popular with fungi. These included Candlesnuff (Xylaria hypoxylon), Honey Fungi ( Armillaria cepistipes), Dead Moll’s Fingers (Xylaria longipes) and a scarce species called Pseudocraterellus sinuosus. The candlesnuff was very interesting and I learnt that it gets its name from the fact that when it is flicked, the spores burst out of the fruiting bodies in a pale ‘smoke’, like when you snuff a candle.

To finish off the walk, the leaders gave me a challenge. We had found a Russula on the walk, which needed identifying. At the start of the walk I was given a book on Russulas by the leaders, called “The Genus Russula in Great Britain” by Geoffrey Kibby. I was to use this book to find out what species this Russula is. It discolours reddish-brown before black when it is cut, but the gills are too crowded for some other species with this feature. It also tastes very acrid when the gills are chewed for a short while. All this points to Russula densifolia!

A Microscopy Workshop: a great day out!

On the way to Wales this summer (see Teifi Marshes, home to the Welsh Wildlife Centre) I stopped off at Brunel Microscopes Ltd.’s HQ in Chippenham to look for a microscope that would suit me best. I bought a microscope mainly for looking at fungi spores and other fungal structures, but I also look at other things like the leaves of Fissidens spp., a genus of mosses which are absolutely tiny. I’m still getting used to using the microscope, so today I went to a beginner’s microscope workshop in Great Bookham run by the West Weald Fungus Recording Group.

I was asked to bring my microscope to the workshop, so I did, but I left the stuff like the prepared slides, pipettes, coverslips etc. behind thinking that I wouldn’t need them. However, that turned out to be a mistake as I took just a few minutes to set myself up, whereas others started unloading whole dissection kits, oil immersion, all the chemicals and stains… at least there was a plate of Jaffa cakes to keep me busy!

The day started with a talk by Maurice Moss, who used to be a professor at Guildford University. He brought in two microscopes, one a dissecting microscope for larger objects like feathers and moths and the other a standard one like the one I have to look at fungi. He taught us all about how polarising filters can be used to look at colours in crystals and the colours the filters produced were phenomenal. He also let us look at some of his prepared slides, such as a peacock head feather, which again had superb colour.

After Maurice’s talk we chatted amongst ourselves about fungi (and other things!) and some people were able to recommend some useful tools and books. Many were quite surprised that I had no books whatsoever, and they had no hesitation in recommending “Mushrooms” by Roger Phillips. This looks really good and I think it will be a good purchase if I can find a copy , as well as a key to the genus Russula (a tricky genus) by Geoffrey Kibby, who regularly comes along to WWFG meetings.

After lunch was a talk by Barry Hughes, the author and photographer behind the Collins Fungi Guide. Many of the photos included in the book are taken in Surrey and West Sussex! He did a talk on spores and he handed out a few spore prints for us all to look at. He then asked us to look at them under the microscope and decide what shape they were using a sheet he handed out. My spores were from the genus Inocybe and almond-shaped! I learnt that there are a few tests you can do on spores to help identify it. You can see if the spores are amyloid, dextrinoid or neither by applying iodine using Melzer’s reagent or Lugol’s solution. If the spores turn black to blue-black when exposed to the substance then they are amyloid and if they turn reddish-brown then they are dextrinoid.

Other tests you can do include:

  • Putting a few drops of household ammonia onto the flesh of the fungus. The fungus might or might not have a reaction; if it does then the colour the flesh turns aids an identification.
  • A fun one: the gills of the genus Lyophyllum turn blue with Paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde.
  • When potassium hydroxide (KOH) is applied there is a colour change in some fungi, including agarics and boletes.

At the end of the afternoon, I had a really informative day. I learnt lots of new skills which hopefully I will soon be applying back home. I also had the chance to meet some really great people who love to share their interests.

One of my spore photos, taken earlier in the year.

One of my spore photos, taken earlier in the year.