The Fungus with ‘eyes’….
A couple of weeks ago in northern Kenya I was out in the bush one morning poking through a pile of rhino dung. Black rhinos deposit their dung in large middens at regular intervals. This serves as an olfactory calling card to other rhinos in the area. It is also a magnet for many kinds of insects such as dung-flies and dung-beetles.
As I stood by the midden watching the coming and going of insects, I kept feeling something wet and sticky landing on me. I peered up into the branches of the fever trees above, but there were no culprits there.
I resumed watching the insects, and as I moved, the bombardment of wet globs grew ever more intense. Puzzled I looked around and then realised that it was coming FROM THE DUNG!
Peering close revealed the source of the drops. It was one of the most remarkable organisms on the planet – called Pilobolus. This is a kind of dung-fungus, which has the most bizarre and amazing strategy for dispersing itself.
The head of the reproductive structure – which includes the clear glass-like ball in the pictures below, uses the light as it swells to ‘focus’ just like a lens and point towards the light. This makes it function similar to that of our own eyes.
Eventually the pressure builds and the black spore mass (called the sporangiophore) is shot out at a fantastic speed. Even though all this action is taking place on a minute scale, the force with which the spore mass is ejected is one of the fastest movements in nature.
This action projects the spores onto the surrounding vegetation and even flies and other insects on the dung. This helps the fungus to disperse more widely. The spore mass that lands on vegetation is consumed by another browsing or grazing large mammal and dispersed in its dung, and the cycle continues. Even standing 2-3 metres from the dung midden I was still getting hit by the spore mass projectiles! This is an incredible feat given how tiny the fungus is – it would be like us jumping over 200 times our own height.
You can see some of the flies that were landing on the rhino dung around the fungus in this picture:
This phenomenon has been studied by scientists and even filmed using high-speed cameras. You can watch the projection of the fungus as it explodes the spore mass out in the video below made by scientists:
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