Weird and Wonderful Slime Mold

March 28th, 2010 | by | 8 Comments
Published in Natural History
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Yellow Slime Mold

Yellow Slime Mold. Photo © Dave Ingram.

At any time of year it is nice to go for a stroll in the forest and seek out some of the weird and wonderful things living there. One of the most overlooked, and interesting of these are the slime molds. Often found on rotting logs or decaying stumps, slime molds may be bright yellow like a blob of scrambled eggs, or grey-white like tapioca pudding. Despite their unattractive name, slime molds come in a wide variety of forms and colours, some of which are strangely beautiful.

Scientists have long debated what slime molds are, since they have features in common with both fungi and animals. Like animals, slime molds are free-living and capable of locomotion. Like fungi, slime molds form fruiting bodies that produce reproductive units called spores.

Not fitting clearly into any category, slime molds have been placed in their own group, known as the Myxomycetes. This Greek name means myxa (slime) and mycetes (fungi). Around 700 species of myxomycetes have been described worldwide.

People who have never encountered slime molds have been known to react with fear to these unusual organisms. In Dallas, Texas in 1973, an unusually large mass of slime mold was discovered on the lawn of a suburban resident. Locals panicked, thinking that it was harmful bacteria, or an alien life form. When doused with water, the slime mold appeared to grow, which didn’t help matters. After making national news, the situation was resolved by a local science student, who identified the strange yellow blob as a slime mold. In a few days it completely disappeared.

White Slime Mold

White Slime Mold. Photo © Dave Ingram.

Slime mold reproduction is very complex, and begins with a single spore. Under favourable conditions the spore germinates, releasing cells that either have whip-like tails (flagellate) or no flagella (amoeboid). Whether the cells are flagellate or not depends upon moisture conditions.

These cells may act as sexual units called gametes, and will merge with compatible cells to form a zygote. The zygote then feeds and grows, and expands into a larger form called a plasmodium. During this process, the nucleus (core material of the cell) divides many times, but cells do not divide. As a result, a mature plasmodium may have thousands of nuclei, but consists of only one giant cell. This cell is bound by cell membrane or enclosed by a slime sheath. The sheath may be shed as a “slime track” behind the moving plasmodium.

The plasmodium usually lives in cool, dark places, where it creeps slowly forward, feeding on bacteria, yeast and bits of organic matter. Plasmodia vary in size, form and colour. Some are very small, and rarely noticed, while others are several centimeters wide. Plasmodia may be yellow, orange or red in colour, and may consist of a network of vein-like strands or be granular in appearance. During dry or cold weather the plasmodium may convert into a hard, crust like form called a sclerotium. This enables the slime mold to go dormant until conditions become favourable.

After sufficient feeding the slime mold migrates to a drier location with more light. Here, a remarkable transformation takes place. The slime mold stops feeding and moving, and the plasmodium produces a fruiting body. This transformation is brought about by certain signals such as exhaustion of available food, and changes in temperature and moisture. During this stage, the slime mold completes its life cycle by releasing spores from the fruiting body, which are dispersed by wind to new locations.

The fruiting bodies of slime molds are the phase of the life cycle most visible to humans. Fruiting bodies are found in diverse shapes and colours, and may appear as a cushion-shaped mass or a cluster of globe-shaped sporangia (spore bearing sacs) balanced on thin stalks. Fruiting bodies may also be goblet or plume shaped.

Whitish/Beige Slime Mold

Whitish/Beige Slime Mold. Photo © Dave Ingram.

Slime molds have been used in some interesting experiments. Japanese scientists constructed a maze, and placed food at the end of two exits, with four possible routes. Surprisingly, the slime mold squeezed itself into the shortest section of maze to reach the food. Dr. Tanya Latty at the University of Sidney conducted an experiment that assessed the ability of slime molds to choose between different quality food sources with different degrees of risk. Both of these experiments may indicate that the slime mold, a single-celled organism, may possess a primitive intelligence. Another Japanese experiment tested the efficiency of slime molds in choosing food sources with the idea that complex communication and subway systems could be modeled by the choice patterns of slime molds.

Another experiment, conducted at the University of Southampton in England, involves a slime mold plasmodium operating a small robot, known as a “slime-bot”. The legs of the robot react to the movement of the slime mold, which gravitates towards dark, hidden places.

So far, slime molds have not been known to be of medicinal value to humans, though they have been used in cellular studies connected with cancer research.
Slime molds are often encountered in the moist, shady forests of our area on decaying logs and stumps or on leaf litter of the forest floor. They may also be found on grass or bark mulch. Slime molds are harmless and delicate, so it is best to observe these mysterious organisms without disturbing them.

More information about slime molds is available in Myxomycetes: A Handbook of Slime Molds by Steven L. Stephenson.

About the Contributor:

Jocie Ingram is a naturalist and writer based in the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. More of her nature writing can be found on her blog.


Responses

  1. lea coleman says:

    October 9th, 2010 at 11:45 am (#)

    I have just noticed some white slime mold on the long grass in my garden it seems to be dotted along a line of grass each about 5 feet apart it’s sitting on top of clumps of long grass, not shaded it’s a sunny spot during the day although the earth is always very damp.

  2. Deborah Callicott says:

    March 29th, 2011 at 10:24 am (#)

    Yesterday we noticed a number of bright yellow spots on the old portion of the trunk of an elephant plant on our property, this morning there was just one GIANT “spot”. During the night the smaller spots migrated to one of the larger spots, leaving a brown spider web looking residue in the vacated areas. When we touched it with a stick it had the consistancy of “wet” spray insulation foam.

    My daughter said it was alien and called it the “blob”, so I reached for my balsamic vinegar and attempted to destroy the creature, only to find that the vinegar just rolled off the back of said “blob”…. now my back yard area smells like vinegar, and I fear some of our hens (yes, the egg laying type) will attmept to eat the mess …..

    We live in NE Florida and I have never seen anything like this before … Does anyone know if this stuff is dangerous? Can unseen spores be inhaled ? Could the recent low-grade plutonium radiation now being found here from the Japanese meltdown have activated this stuff?

    Quite frankly it just creeps me out ……

  3. Dave Ingram says:

    March 29th, 2011 at 9:09 pm (#)

    Thanks for visiting Deborah! I’m not sure what affect vinegar will have on slime mold but you’ve got a very cool opportunity to observe it change from the active creeping form to a reproductive state.

    I don’t think that Japanese radioactive “fallout” is anywhere near the levels needed to create a spontaneous mutation (or if that is even possible – don’t remember reading about any giant slime molds near Chernobyl). I think more likely that overall climate change might be encouraging certain types of organisms to do better than others but again, I think that even that would be unlikely to create a dramatic slime blob!

  4. hippo says:

    May 31st, 2011 at 5:58 am (#)

    Live in Charlotte,started to get this stuff bout 2 weeks ago.didnt think much of it.My main concern with 3 kids a dog & cat,is ifis harmfull.I got mt wood mulch from our local recycle center,witch they use wood from whoever brings it in from probably a 15-20 mile radious.Our mold eventually turns brown and powdery and goes away

  5. Dave Ingram says:

    May 31st, 2011 at 7:56 pm (#)

    Thanks for stopping in Hippo! I can’t see it being harmful to kids or pets and it is kind of fascinating to look at up close!

  6. Don’t give up – Peter Gabriel | Vancouver Island Big Year says:

    February 23rd, 2015 at 10:09 pm (#)

    […] This blog post by Jocie Ingram provides a lot more information on them, and even has a picture of one that I believe is the same as this one. […]

  7. Kyle says:

    July 16th, 2015 at 6:31 pm (#)

    I had yellow the yellow fluff slime in my mulch and was fearful that my children would eat it or touch it not sure if it is toxic but poured bleach over it and it made a chemical reaction decomposing the fungi like bubbling effect ditereating down to almost nothing the the rain washed away the rest stayed gone for about a month or so then came back in the exact place and size not sure it can be gone for good.

  8. Dave Ingram says:

    August 10th, 2015 at 8:03 am (#)

    Hello Kyle – as far as I know slime mould isn’t toxic and there’s no reason to get rid of it, it will just slowly crawl away and eventually dry out. My kids and I have touched it with no ill effects, wouldn’t recommend eating it though.

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