30 Hours with Team Slime Mold
Field notes from the lumpy, yellow side of biodiversity
My reporting notes don’t usually begin “Cuddle-Up,” but this Saturday’s project is already careening toward the surreal, and it’s not even 9 a.m. I’ve been instructed to drive to an art deco amusement park just outside Washington, D.C. At Glen Echo Park, I’m to meet my contact at an open pavilion painted powder blue and adorned with the Cuddle-Up sign.
There’s some cuddling of coffee cups, but otherwise I just see dozens of people in jeans wearing “Hello” name stickers with “Beetles” or “Moths” or some other taxonomic affinity on them, as if for a party game. With weird luck, I almost immediately spot the label “Lance Biechele, Fungi,” on a compact, silver-haired man in green rubber boots.
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We’ve never met before, but he’s agreed to let me tag along as he leads colleagues to search for as many fungi and slime mold species as they can find in the next 30 hours. The searchers will focus on the national parks in Virginia and Maryland along a 15-mile stretch called the Potomac Gorge, just before the river slides by Washington.
While Team Slime Mold/Fungus scrapes bits off rotting logs, 18 other teams will stalk their own taxonomic targets. This is a BioBlitz, the biodiversity version of a barn raising. Field biologists and experienced hobbyists volunteer en masse for a day or two to make a rough inventory of both commonplace and odd species as a baseline for conservation planning. (Check local parks to see if one nearby needs volunteers.)
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Somewhere in this mob is Sam Droege, who says that he coined the term BioBlitz 10 years ago. A biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., today he’s scheduled to lead Team Ant, Bee, and Wasp. Since that 1996 survey in another Washington-area park, BioBlitzers have convened at dozens of spots, from New York’s Central Park to New Zealand’s Waitakere City. Droege says, “Whenever you get that many biologists together, they’ll find something rare.”
The teams quiet and nudge their backpacks and buckets and long-handled nets into a horseshoe around the Cuddle-Up stage. Representatives from the sponsors, the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, make last-minute announcements. Beetle specialist Arthur Evans of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington welcomes the more than 100 volunteers whom he has recruited to the BioBlitz. There’s no bird team, and just two mammal specialists will join in, looking only for two, long-lost species. This weekend, Evans reminds us, will be devoted to “undersurveyed” organisms. So who better to follow than Team Slime Mold?
Team Slime Mold aggregates quickly, and before we’ve reached the parking lot, Biechele clocks the first find. He points out a hand-size patch of lumpy yellow crust on mulch in a flowerbed. It’s a slime mold, Fuligo septica, which he cheerfully tells me is sometimes called “dog-vomit slime.”
Unlike a fungus, each slime mold at some stage turns into a creeping blob that engulfs its prey and slithers on like a B-movie science-fiction alien. Biechele, from Salisbury, Md., has the reputation of being a good man to call when blobs start oozing. However, the slime mold that he’s found is past its blob phase and is starting to form spores by thickening into a lumpy mass indicative of its other common name, scrambled-egg slime.
As we start off again to the parking lot, William Roody, a field biologist from Elkins, W.Va., who works for the state’s Division of Natural Resources (DNR), suggests that may be it for today’s findings. He has a merry smile, so it takes me a minute to realize that he’s not entirely kidding.
For one thing, it’s too early in the year, he explains. The big flush of showy fungus species around here, the equivalent of peak spring wildflowers, comes after rains in late summer, but now it’s only June. With so many organisms to consider, one BioBlitz schedule never fits all.
Roody also says, “It’s too dry.” I’m floored. The early summer baked the Washington region, but for the past few days, torrential rains have drowned us. Today is so humid that mushrooms might soon be growing in my hair.
Roody again gently explains that the whole post-rain burst of mushrooms doesn’t just pop up instantly. The tangled threads of tissue that make up a fungus can take several days or a week to send up the fruiting body that we routinely call a mushroom. Team member Jon Ellifritz of West Hyattsville, Md., the president of the Mycological Association of Washington, agrees that it’s likely to be tough hunting. As far as I can tell, though, the whole team is looking forward to it.
In a parking lot on the Virginia side of the Potomac, the crew is unloading gear. Biechele, Roody, and his West Virginia DNR colleague Donna Mitchell, for example, will be carrying baskets like Little Red Riding Hood’s. Wide-mouthed baskets are a traditional choice for fungus hunters, who worry about deep piles crushing a bottom layer.
Biechele is dismayed that I’m not carrying a magnifying lens. Nobody’s going to want my opinion about a detail for identification, but apparently I’ll miss the beauty of the finds. A mushroomer without a magnifying lens is like a birder without binoculars. Team member Richard Gaines of Olympia, Wash., offers me his spare.
The team’s most esoteric equipment, though, is the waxed paper sandwich bag, which has practically been driven to extinction by the plastic bag. Yet plastic bags collect condensation on the inside, I’m told, and specimens rot faster.
As the team heads into the woods, I trail after Biechele and Gaines. We’re barely two strides out of the parking lot when Biechele lunges at an orange fleck in the grass by the path. He straightens up, glaring at what turns out to be a blossom that’s fallen off its stem. “Flower mushroom,” he snorts and tosses it aside.
He next swoops upon a clump of tawny, nickel-size parachute tops on dark stems. He deftly dislodges a sample and passes it to Gaines, who doesn’t so much look at it as sniff at it. They then discuss the smell, which might resemble garlic’s and could matter in the final identification.
“People think you have to go deep into the woods to find mushrooms,” Biechele says. “But all these manhandled places”—he gestures around us at the intersecting paths and mowed-grass edges—”are great.”
Despite the greatness of manhandled spaces, the power of drought seems greater. We do a lot of tramping and poking but not much picking. Biechele bursts out of the shrubbery, empty handed, saying something about becoming a birdwatcher.
We’ve jagged southward into older trees. In a clearing where a giant trunk has fallen, Biechele spots another of the scrambled-egg slime molds. He shows how to tell which way it was crawling by looking at its tracks, a twinkle of drying flecks to one side.
Then, Biechele and Gaines have a thrilling 15 seconds. Farther down the log they find a fleshy pink lump the size of a fingertip rising out of the bark. It’s a Lycogala epidendrum slime mold, also called toothpaste slime. Puncturing the lump at just the right stage lets out a fat cylinder of soft pink innards.
And several inches away lie the fruiting bodies of a wood hair slime mold (Stemonitis fusca). To me they look like a tight cluster, barely an inch high, of several dozen miniature hot dogs on sticks.
After a lunch at picnic tables, the team moves to the Maryland side of the Potomac park. As members straggle through the open woods, the youngest, Susanna Rhodes, 15, of Chesterfield, Va., glimpses something bright on a fallen branch. It turns out to be eyelash cup fungus (Scutellina scutellata), an overlapping array of dish-shaped red dots, each encircled in a dark fringe.
I see team members around a stocky mushroom with a purplish-red top and ultrawhite underparts. As I get closer, Biechele hands it to Nicole Cintas, a plant pathologist at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria.
Cintas bites its edge (do not try this at home). There’s silence for a minute as she chews and stares into the middle distance. “It’s hot,” she says finally, turning for a discrete spit.
The mushroom belongs to the Russulaceae family, and Ellifritz croons the ’60s tune “Little Boxes,” revised as the mushroomer’s lament, “Little Russulas”: “… There’s a red one and a yellow one, And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky, And they all look just the same.”
Biechele says that some 200 species of the Russula genus are difficult to tell apart. Identification rests on characteristics such as degree of red-pepper heat—plus heroics at the microscope.
About 5 p.m., the team heads back to the amusement park, which will serve as a field laboratory for the weekend. It will also host a wedding this evening, and guests in suits and cocktail dresses stream in along with the BioBlitzers and their specimens. A man in a dark suit with an orchid boutonniere gives me a wide berth but a friendly smile.
In a building near the Cuddle-Up, rows of long wooden tables and a diversity of paraphernalia—from bait buckets and razor blades to high-intensity lamps and a hefty spider in a jar—give the air of a frantic countdown to a natural history museum’s rummage sale.
The slime mold/fungus team’s tables stand out against a chaotic background because the team is covering them with white paper plates. Each plate holds one of the day’s specimens, and team members begin to print Latin names where the coleslaw might go.
Discussion is lively, and I see names crossed out and replaced, or equal signs added with another Latin name from a revision of the nomenclature. Mushroom clubs for years have relied on this picnic-plate system to display the treasures from a day’s foraging.
On Sunday morning, rain clatters on the car roof as I drive back to the park. Inside the makeshift lab, the slime mold team frets about the weather, which is even more too wet while still too dry, and opts to work on identifying the specimens from yesterday.
Many of the other teams have also given up trying to collect in the rain and are working on their identifications. But Team Crayfish, already destined to be soggy, is having a splendid day. But Zachary Loughman of the Oglebay Institute in Wheeling, W.Va., explains that the group has been tracking a thug crayfish species that arrived as bait and is harassing the Potomac Gorge’s three native crayfish species.
As we talk, team members make practiced grabs into yellow bait buckets and lift out twisting specimens, with claws poised to snap. The team shows off a 10-centimeter-long native devil crayfish, known by its lipstick-red streaks. Oglebay intern Christopher Vopal acts out the technique for their capture, pretending to poke his arm down an entrance tunnel into the crayfish’s inner chamber, then bouncing his fist in the pool there as if plunging a toilet, until the resident devil ventures out of its hole to investigate.
The Potomac Gorge isn’t just about water though, says one of the beetle surveyors, Warren Steiner of the Smithsonian. He focuses on what he calls microdeserts, easily overlooked patches that could provide vital homes for drought specialists. Rocky outcroppings along the Potomac’s edge rank as prime microdeserts, he says.
During the night before the rain, Steiner and Jil Swearingen of the National Park Service had carried black lights and white sheets out to some such rocky terrain. Picking nocturnal insects off a disco-glowing sheet yielded specimens that they wouldn’t have otherwise found, he says. The downside, though, was lugging the equipment back, with only wavering headlamps, over the boulders known locally as the Billy Goat Trail.
Another team has collected a species not yet named by science—though science seems to be taking its sweet time in doing so. It’s a moth, “a tiny, nondescript thing,” says John Brown of the Smithsonian, leader of Team Moths and Butterflies. The creature was probably first collected on an island in the Potomac 100 years ago. Museums have six or seven long-held specimens, but they’re what might otherwise be called moth-eaten. A Smithsonian colleague has a publication in the works that will finally give the moth its own scientific name. He’ll be delighted, says Brown, to have a fresh moth as the reference specimen.
Back in the hall’s fungus zone, last-night’s rough-draft picnicware has been replaced with new paper plates lettered in black marker with the team’s current consensus on the species names. While Mitchell huddles over a microscope considering a problem Russula, Biechele photographs the plates and specimens for the record.
Despite all the obstacles, Biechele’s preliminary count is 5 slime molds and 51 fungi. The most intriguing find, collected by Ellifritz, belongs in the general group of polypores, wood-loving fungi that bear spores in little tubes on their undersides. “I’ve only seen it once before in 30 years,” says Roody. He’s going to have to check to see whether it has a species name.
At 3 p.m., the collecting phase of this BioBlitz ends, and the preliminary score for all teams combined stands at just over 1,000 species identified. No luck on the missing mammals, but other teams have good news, such as the first record of a particular fly east of Iowa plus two previously unrecognized moist habitats called seeps with two rare invertebrates. More exciting news: two rare land snails and abundance of a plant that was first described only 6 years ago.
The collectors plan to tie up the loose ends on their identifications in the coming months and then publish a journal article on their finds.
Maybe next time …
Three days later, as the weather is finally clearing, I walk out of the Science News offices about half an hour’s drive from the Gorge. Before I reach the end of the block, I spot four kinds of fungi.