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Posts Tagged ‘fungus’

As spring belatedly decided to show up in our neck of the woods, a Hollywood movie crew turned the town into a Christmas set, building a crèche in front of a picturesque church, decorating store windows with candy canes, snowmen, and plastic poinsettias — and spreading fake snow on lawns that had barely recovered from an April 1 blizzard. It was a little weird. One friend said she looked up from washing dishes at her kitchen window and saw what looked like a gigantic spaceship hovering over the trees. It was the boom for the cameraman.

In more seasonal news, spring flowers began to poke out. Woodland walks were taken. Mushrooms and lichens were admired.

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Something reader KerryCan said in a comment one day got me thinking that I’d like to see if I could get a photo of Providence that could make a part of the city pass for rural. At first, I found only bland vacant lots left over from the rerouting of route 195. Then I went to Blackstone Park, where a treehugger tree and an ersatz teepee caught my eye.

The soccer-playing kid is in a suburban-looking area on the East Side, and the glowing tunnel is right downtown.

I thought the sandbox looked lonely.

In Massachusetts, I went looking for skunk cabbage and jack-in-the-pulpit plants, but it was too early. Not spring yet. I did hear peepers. And I saw gracefully rotting tree stumps, a bird on a mailbox, and a wonderful rainbow.

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Doubtless you know about fairy circles, also called fairy rings. According to Wikipedia, they’re a “naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. The rings may grow to over 10 metres (33 ft) in diameter, and they become stable over time as the fungus grows and seeks food underground.

“They are found mainly in forested areas, but also appear in grasslands or rangelands. Fairy rings are detectable by sporocarps in rings or arcs, as well as by a necrotic zone (dead grass), or a ring of dark green grass. If these manifestations are visible a fairy fungus mycelium is likely to be present in the ring or arc underneath.

“Fairy rings also occupy a prominent place in European folklore as the location of gateways into elfin kingdoms.”

But in Africa, there is a different kind of fairy circle that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mushrooms.

Did you catch the article by Sindya Bhanoo in the NY Times?

“The grasslands of Namibia — and to a lesser extent its neighbors Angola and South Africa — are speckled with millions of mysterious bare spots called ‘fairy circles,’ their origins unknown.

“Now, a study based on several years of satellite images describes the circles’ life span as they appear, transform over decades, and then eventually disappear.

“Writing in the journal PLoS One, Walter R. Tschinkel, the study’s author and a biologist at Florida State University, reports that the circles can last 24 to 75 years.

“The circles, which range from about 6 to 30 feet in diameter, begin as bare spots on an otherwise continuous grass carpet; after a few years, taller grass starts to grow around the circle’s perimeter.”

The reader is left with the question, Are these circles gateways to elfin kingdoms? What kind of elves are in Namibia?

I don’t understand why scientists don’t investigate matters like that.

Update July 13, 2012: Asakiyume has been tracking down stories about African fairy circles. Read this.

Update March 30, 2013: NY Times has fingered a particular species of sand termites, Psammotermes alloceru. Read this.

Photograph: Walter R. Tschinkel

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I got an intriguing tip from a WordPress blog, The Yoga Hub, about Yale students who found a microbe that eats plastic. The discovery spells hope for breaking down plastics in landfills.

Bruce Fellman writes in the Yale Alumni Magazine, “A group of student bioprospectors from Yale has struck environmental gold in the jungles of Ecuador. The students, through the annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course taught by molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, have discovered a fungus with a powerful appetite for polyurethane. That common plastic often winds up buried in landfills, where it can remain, largely unaltered, for generations.

“In the September issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Jonathan Russell ’11 and his colleagues describe how they isolated, from plants collected during the class’s two-week spring trips, a fungus they identified as Pestalotiopsis microspora—and then discovered its unique polyurethane-digesting talents.” More here.

Sounds promising, but I can’t help worrying about the possible unintended consequences of introducing a microbe to places where it is not native. Maybe cutting back on plastics is still the way to go.

Photograph: Yale University

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