Monday, April 29, 2019

A Slime Mold Imitates an Egg Case


When I saw these lumpy sacks on a tree in Herrontown Woods, I thought some new invasive insect had arrived, and that these sacks would soon burst open, scattering pestilence throughout the woods. That may well happen, sooner rather than later, as a new invasive species, the spotted lanternfly, spreads into New Jersey from Pennsylvania. But an internet search suggests that these unusual growths are not the work of an insect or a fungus, but instead are the work of a slime mold.

Now, slime molds are not something I've spent much time thinking about in life. Somehow, they seldom come up in everyday conversation. But after a brief google search, I'm considering devoting a future life to the study of them. It might even be fun to be one. Apparently, they are single-celled organisms that can live on their own, but sometimes get together and behave in coordinated ways that suggest a collective intelligence. There are some echoes of humanity there.

Wikipedia puts it this way:
"Slime mold or slime mould is an informal name given to several kinds of unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can live freely as single cells, but can aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures."
Here's a promising article with a lovely photo, "Slime Molds Remember, but Do They Learn?", which starts like this:
"Slime molds are among the world’s strangest organisms. Long mistaken for fungi, they are now classed as a type of amoeba. As single-celled organisms, they have neither neurons nor brains. Yet for about a decade, scientists have debated whether slime molds have the capacity to learn about their environments and adjust their behavior accordingly."
The tech world even sees the study of slime mold behavior as having applications for self-driving cars.

Other definitions are less promising. Some mornings, I can relate to this one:
"a simple organism that consists of an acellular mass of creeping gelatinous protoplasm"
There, but for a good cup of coffee, go I.

Wikipedia describes how they can congregate and
"start moving as a single body. In this state they are sensitive to airborne chemicals and can detect food sources. They can readily change the shape and function of parts and may form stalks that produce fruiting bodies, releasing countless spores"
The slime mold spotted on a nearby tree at Herrontown Woods during a walk up to the Veblen Cottage appears to have a name, False Puffball, which is just another way of saying Enteridium lycoperdon.

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