"Everything is simpler than you think

and at the same time more complex than you imagine."

    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

    Poet, novelist, playwright


Shelf fungi, Pycnoporus sanguineus. Eggleston, south-central Dominica, Lesser Antilles.



The Almost-Animals


KINGDOM PROTISTA

 

    Slime molds were once considered to be a type of fungi, but are now known to belong in the kingdom Protista, the same that contains protozoans. Alternativey they are placed in their own kingdom, subkingdom or phylum: Amoebozoa.

    They begin their life cycles as haploid amoeboid cells, which can mate among themselves sexually if they possess genetic material that is different enough from each other's. The new, diploid cell grows but then something remarkable happens. As it undergoes mitosis, its chromosomes divide, its  nucleus splits normally, but the cell itself doesn't. It only grows larger, first containing two nuclei, then four, and so on. These "plasmodia" (singular "plasmodium") can be, in some species, tens of square meters in area, making them the largest cells known in terms of area, containing thousands of nuclei.

 

    The plasmodium can move from place to place, creeping slowly on its substrate of dead and rotting plant matter, feeding on microorganisms. If it runs out of prey to feed on, or conditions become otherwise unfavorable for survival, it will migrate to an exposed area (the top of a rotten log or leaves of plants) and there it will produce sporangia. Its spores will then fly airborne to more suitable areas to begin its life cycle anew.

 


Sporangia of a slime mold, species undetermined. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 


Slime mold, species undetermined. El Verde Biological Station, north-eastern Puerto Rico.


Sporangia of slime mold, Stemmonitus sp. Crown Mountain, central Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands.



Slime mold, Ceratiomyxa morchella. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Slime mold, Hemitrichia serpula. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
These are sometimes named "pretzel molds" for their appearance.


KINGDOM FUNGI

 

    Fungi were once classified as plants. However, today they are placed in their own kingdom, somewhere "between" plants and animals, but most closely related to the latter.

 

    Like the lower plants (mosses, liverworts, and ferns) fungi reproduce by spores. Also in a manner similar to plants, their cells era encased in a "cell wall". Like animals, however, fungi depend on other organic matter for their survival. While plants use photosynthesis to fix their own carbonic molecules from inorganic matter (they are "autotrophs"), fungi need to obtain theirs from pre-existing organic molecules (they are, like animals, "heterotrophs"). Much more similarly to a true animal than to any plant, a fungus digests its food with the use of enzymes. Fungi lack specific organs to ingest, store and process food (mouths and guts). Instead, they live either on or in their supply of nourishment and absorb nutrients directly through their cells. As the localized food supply is depleted, the entire organism or colony migrates or dies out after shedding spores.

 

    Usually, they feed on decaying tissues or, as parasites, off living organisms. Together with bacteria, fungi are the main recyclers of nutrients in Earth's ecosystems, making them available again for use by plants and, indirectly, by animals. And like bacteria, fungi are found in every single region of the planet. Their spores land on every square centimeter of every natural surface, and suffuse every cubic centimeter of air, water, and topsoil of the World.

 

    There are about 70000 known known species of fungi, but the actual number is probably far higher than that.


Sub-Kingdom Dikarya

 

    This group includes two sub-divisions which are collectively known as the "higher fungi".

 

Phylum Ascomycota

 

    These are the "sac fungi", which, in their sexually reproductive stage, produce non-motile spores from "asci" (singular "ascus"). These are cells in the form of "wineskins" (hence the Greek name), give the phylum its name. A good number of even macroscopic species are parasites of other organisms. In the tropical forests of the World, many species of Cordyceps, Ophiocordyceps and related genera specialize in preying on insects and arachnids. Their spores will invade the brains or nerve ganglia of their victims which, disoriented, will then walk or fly about aimlessly, eventually dying of starvation and due to the destruction of their tissues by the parasite. After death, the fruiting bodies of the invaders will gruesomely break out through the arthropod's cuticle and send more spores flying through the air.

 

    Some of these parasitic species are shown below.

 

This sphynxid moth died while clinging to a tree trunk, possibly killed by a parasitic fungus, Ophiocordyceps sp.

After its death, the fungus broke out from its body and grew in spikes all over it. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Paper wasps, Mischocyttarus mexicanus, killed by a parasitic fungus, possibly Ophiocordyceps humbertii.
First photograph: Cambalache State Forest, northern Puerto Rico. (Courtesy of Mr. Alfredo Colon Archilla).
Second photograph: Ciales, central Puerto Rico.


A pentatomid bug lies dead after being consumed from the inside out by a parasitic fungus, probably Baeuveria sp.

El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Venus's wine cup, Cookeina tricholoma. Florida, central Puerto Rico.

 

    Other species, like Xylaria, are free living and resemble fingers poking out from the bark of dead tress and other plant matter.

 

Fungus, Xylaria fockii. Guilarte State Forest, west-central Puerto Rico.

 

Fungus, Xylaria cubensis. Near Rabo de Gato, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.



Fungus, Xylaria tuberoides. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.



Phylacia sagraneana. Florida, central Puerto Rico.

 

Phylum Basidiomycota

 

    The members of this other phylum reproduce sexually by forming spores (usually in groups of four) from specialized cells called "basidia". Collectively, the dikaryans are called the higher fungi, though both groups may be macroscopic and filamentous, or microscopic and unicellular, like yeasts.


Mushroom, Cantharellus sp. Guajataca, north-western Puerto Rico.

Excellent when mixed with scrambled eggs.

Mushrooms growing off a dead leaf, Collybia johnstonii. El Verde Biological Station, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Stalked stereum, Cotylidia aurantiaca. Florida, central Puerto Rico

Mushroom, species undetermined. Carite State Forest, east-central Puerto Rico.


Fungi, probably Ganoderma lucidum. The Quill National Park, southern Saint Eustatius, Lesser Antilles.



Shelf fungi, probably Ganoderma resiniceum. Carite State Forest, east-central Puerto Rico.
Fungi are important decomposers and parasites in all of our planet's ecosystems.



Shelf fungi, possibly Ganoderma sp. Cambalache State Forest, north-western Puerto Rico.



Shelf fungi, probably Rigidoporus auratia. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Fungi, species undetermined. Florida, central Puerto Rico.


Fungi, species undetermined. Slopes of Mount Scenery, central Saba, Lesser Antilles.


Shelf fungi, probably Rigidoporus microporus. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Fungi, probably Pycnoporus sanguineus. Grand Etang National Park, central Grenada, Lesser Antilles.

 

Shelf fungus, possibly Tremidis sp. Gorda Peak National Park, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.

 

Shelf fungus, Trametes sp. Northern Forest Reserve, Dominica, Lesser Antilles.


Fungi, Auricularia polytricha. Florida, central Puerto Rico.



Fungi, possibly Auricularia sp. San Patricio State Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Fungi, possibly Auricularia sp.. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Fungi, possibly Auricularia sp. Bosque del Milenio, San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Shelf fungi, Pleurotus djamor.
First photograph: Tortuguero Nature Reserve, northern Puerto Rico.
Second photograph:
Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.
 

Shelf fungi, Inopilus entomoloides. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Mushroom, Marasmius leoninus. Guilarte State Forest, central Puerto Rico.



Mushroom, Marasmius haematocephalus. Florida, central Puerto Rico.



Mushrooms, Marasmius sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-easterrn Puerto Rico.



Mushrooms, Gymnopus sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Mushroom, species undetermined. Bosque del Milenio, San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Mushrooms, Anthracophyllum lateritium. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Mushroom, specie undetermined. Slopes of Mount Scenery, central Saba, Lesser Antilles.



Pseudohiatula irrorata. Ciales, central Puerto Rico.

 

Coprinus micaceus. Vermont Nature Reserve, south-western Saint Vincent, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles.



Coprinus sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Mushrooms, Mycena sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.


Mushroom, Pluteus sp. Guilarte State Forest, west-central Puerto Rico.



Mushroom, Pluteus sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Mushrooms, Agaricus rotalis. Santo Domingo, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Mushrooms, Agaricus sp. Near Reef Bay Trail, Virgin Islands National Park, Saint John, United States Virgin Islands.

 

Fungi, Collybia aurea. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Fungus growing on a branch, species undetermined. Bahoruco National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Mushrooms, species undetermined. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Mushrooms, species undetermined. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.


Ramaria sp. Sage Mountain National Park, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.



Ramaria sp. Guajataca State Forest, north-western Puerto Rico.

 


Mushrooms, Chlorophyllum molybdites. San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Mushroom, Lepista subisabellina. San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 


Mushrooms, Hypholoma sp. Toro Negro State Forest, central Puerto Rico.

 

Shelf fungi, species undetermined. Sage Mountain National Park, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.



Mushroom, Phillipsia domingensis. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Mushroom, Hygrocybe occidentalis. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Mushrooms, species undetermined. Florida, central Puerto Rico.
Small black flies are feeding on secretions produced on their undersides.


This enormous mushroom, Polyporus brittonii, is more than a meter in diameter. Part of it has fallen away, perhaps after being stepped upon by some animal.

One of my sneakers is on it, for scale.

El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Shelf fungi, Polyporus tenuiculus. Florida, central Puerto Rico.

 

Fungus, Podoscypha sp. Rio Abajo State Forest, central Puerto Rico.

 

Fungus, Clathrus sp. Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.

 

Fungus, Clathrus crispus. Guana Island, British Virgin Islands.

 

Bird-nest fungi, Cyathus olla. Guana Island, British Virgin Islands.



Bird-nest fungi, Cyathus sp. Florida, central Puerto Rico.



Fungus, Plectania sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Fungus, Tremella fuciformis. Florida, central Puerto Rico.



Fungus growing on branch, possibly Tremella sp. Tortuguero Nature Reserve, northern Puerto Rico.



Mushroom, Morganella fuscenscens. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Fungus, Neohypodiscus rickii. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Fungi, species undetermined. Ciales, central Puerto Rico.



Agaric, probably Amanita chlorinosma. Cambalache State Forest, north-western Puerto Rico.
The genus Amanita contains some edible species, as well as some of the deadliest mushrooms known to man.



Honey fungi, Armillaria puigarii. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
These parasitic mushrooms grow on trees.


    Some fungi, mostly basiodiomycotes, are mutualistic symbiotes of one or another one or two species of unicellular green or red algae, or cyanobacteria. The collective term for both organisms being "lichen". The hyphae of the fungus form the physical matrix for the algae to live in, while these last provide the fungus with essential nutrients. Lichens can live on the branches of trees and even on bare rock. Hardy survivors, lichens are some of the very few organisms found in the most extreme and hostile environments, like the coldest, driest, and windiest regions on planet Earth: the coastal deserts of Antarctica.


    The binomial names of lichens are the ones that apply to the fungi that form the matrix, while the algae or cyanobacteria retain their own binomial names when considered on their own. Thus, lichens are not classified in the same way that other biological "species" are simply because a lichen, by definition, is never only one species.



Lichens growing on rocks, Stereocaulon sp. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Lichens are actually a symbiotic array of a fungus (the visible part) and an algae,

usually microscopic and giving most lichens a blue, green, yellow, red , or brown color.



Lichen, Phyllobaeis sp.
El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

Lichen growing on a rock, Xanthoparmelia sp. Mount Sage, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

 


Lichen on tree trunk, Parmotrema sp. Camuy Caverns Park, Camuy, north-western Puerto Rico.



Lichen on a boulder, Parmotrema sp. Mountaintop, central Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands.



Lichen, Cladonia sp. Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.



Lichen on twig, Pseudocyphellaria aurata. Florida, central Puerto Rico.



Lichen growing on a tree trunk, Coccocarpia sp. Gorda Peak National Park, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.

 


Hanging lichen, Usnea sp. Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.