An encounter with Terana caerulea

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Terana caerulea!Not so long ago, I was visiting a stamp-collecting friend, and I happened to see the corticioid species Terana caerulea on a recent Macedonian stamp. A corticioid fungus on a stamp?? I was beside myself with astonishment, since corticioids (aka, crusts) are the outsiders of the fungal world, either despised or ignored. A mycophile of my acquaintance refers to them as “molds.”

There’s no reason to despise Terana caerulea, however. The name of its former genus, Pulcherricium, will tell you why. The species is an intense cobalt blue when fresh and a pleasant bluish color when not so fresh. Even the spores are bluish in color. The surface is smooth or slightly tuberculate, with a waxlike consistency. Inhabiting hardwood debris, T. caerulea can be found in New England, although it’s far more common in the southeastern part of the country.

Here’s my hope: that other countries will start putting crust fungi on their stamps, and in this way help to stamp out a more or less worldwide prejudice. I can imagine the bright-red Phanerochaete sanguinea on a Seychelles stamp and the wine-red Cytidia salicina on a Tunisian stamp. I can also imagine the yellow hydnoid Mucronella flava on a Serbian stamp and the green-blue Byssocorticium atrovirens on a Danish stamp.

Dare I hope that America, perhaps the most anti-corticioid of all nations, will put a (for example) gold-yellow Lindteria trachyspora on one of its stamps?

Photograph by Brian Luther.

Santa Claus is a mushroom!

Christmas is nearly upon us, and I can’t help thinking of a certain mushroom. Specifically, I think of Amanita muscaria, a large, often obese red-and-white species that plays a part in the composition of Santa Claus. I can hear your gasps of astonishment, so consider the following:

Lapp life in the old daysIn the Middle Ages, Europeans had peculiar notions about Lapland. For instance, they thought all Samis (Lapps) were shamans. As it happens, many of them in fact were. Let’s say a sick person puts out a call for a noaidi (shaman). The noaidi would arrive at that person’s lodge in a reindeer-drawn sled. He would be obliged to enter via the chimney because the pile-up of snow prevents him from entering through the front door.

Before his arrival, the noaidi would already have ingested several dried karpassienis (Amanita muscarias), which would help him ascertain the cause of his patient’s illness. It’s said that the noaidi who has eaten this mushroom typically turns into a facsimile of it, or at least takes on its distinctive red-and-white color scheme. Also, payment for his services would be in food, often lots of it, so he would usually be a quite large man.

Giant Polypores and Stoned Reindeer

my latest!

Here I might mention that reindeer are inordinately fond of A. muscaria. Presumably, it gives them the same sensation that it gives to us non-reindeer — the sensation of flying. If you interviewed a reindeer, I suspect that it might say that it quite liked the feeling of flying through the air with the greatest of ease. It might add that a reindeer with a red nose is afflicted with a parasite, a bot fly larva (or larvae), and while this can be painful, it doesn’t usually result in one’s nose glowing like a light bulb…

To learn more about the Santa Claus-mushroom connection, I recommend that you read my book Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer. You can purchase a copy by sending at a check for $20 (postpaid) to: Lawrence Millman, P.O. Box 381582, Cambridge, MA 02238. You won’t regret it!

16 reasons why giant madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa) make good pets

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one of mine1. They do not bite you, scratch you, or leave dead mice on your pillow. Nor do they confuse your leg with a sexual partner.

2. Their slow, indeed downright torpid movement can induce a zenlike state in the observer.

3. They tend not to possess the universal cockroach baggage: harmful bacteria, viruses, or worms.

4. They don’t wrack up expensive veterinarian bills.

5. Even if you did step in their poo, it would not produce the “ick” factor that stepping into the poo of (for example) a Canis familiaris would.

6. They don’t mind the absence of food in their terrarium. Go away for a month, and they just alter their metabolism accordingly.

7. They are among the few insects that communicate with a breath-powered voice, like birds and mammals.

8. Tape record a male hissing, replay it for a female, and watch her body palpitate with excitement.

9. They don’t wake you up in the middle of the night because they need to be let outside.

10. They don’t stick their muzzles into something nasty and then lick you.

11. They possess symbiotic mites that frolic like ballet dancers around their exoskeletons.

12. Those exoskeletons bear a close resemblance to polished mahogany.

13. Unlike certain pets, they’re not stuck in a state of perpetual childhood. Instead, they pass from egg to instar to adult without a backward glance.

14. They’ll eat anything you eat and, in addition, they’ll eat their own molts.

15. They don’t hiss at the neighbors.

16. They’re more or less unchanged in 365 million years. As the cockroach archy (of archy and mehitabel fame) said to the reader: “after all we were around when you were only a whatsis.”

A true mycophile

It’s been so disturbingly dry and bereft of fungi here in the Northeast that I feel a strong sense of foreboding. At any moment, I expect to see the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping down the road toward me. Five Horsemen? That’s right, for the newest and most potentially dangerous Horseman of the Apocalypse is Climate Change.

Bolitotherus cornutus, male

Mack is a Bolitotherus cornutus male.

In such difficult times, the fungally-deprived person can inspect horse dung for a fruiting of Coprinus or wait until one of the Apocalyptic Horseman’s mounts dies, then examine its moldering hooves for Onygena equina. Even better, perhaps, that person could look for an insect that makes perennial polypores its home as well as its breeding ground. I’m referring to the Horned or Forked Fungus Beetle (Bolitotherus cornutus), a tenebrionid species far more pleasing to me than the so-called Pleasing Fungus Beetle.

A few months ago, I collected a male and female Bolitotherus on a Ganoderma applanatum in Vermont and brought them home for study. The male, Mack, has a pair of horns sprouting anteriorly from his pronotum, the better to thrust a competing male from his polypore home (big horns are probably good for mate selection, too), while the female, Sue, lacks horns. Otherwise, both look quite similar… like miniature medieval armored tanks. This morphology suggests that they could survive anything, perhaps even climate change. Their actual survival mechanisms consist of (1) rolling over and playing dead at the slightest provocation, and (2) releasing a benzoquinone defensive volatile in the direction of a breathlike air stream. I’ve tried to get Mack and Sue to release this volatile by breathing on them, but they’ve refused to do so. Maybe they like me…

Certainly, I like them. In the time I’ve spent studying them, they’ve exhibited an almost total absence of movement that seems almost zenlike. What can they be thinking about? Perhaps about nothing? That would be very zenlike, too. And whenever I watch them for any length of time, I start to move into a zenlike mode myself. Indeed, I would recommend that aficionados of meditation and Eastern religions seek out Bolitotherus cornutus for inspiration.

On at least one occasion, however, Mack and Sue were positively unzenlike. One night I woke up around 3am and couldn’t get back to sleep. All of a sudden I heard a peculiar rasping sound from Mack and Sue’s terrarium. I saw that the ventral surface of Mack’s abdomen was grating against the dorsal surface of Sue’s thorax. From what I’d read about the species, I knew that this was the position a male and female Bolitotherus assume prior to mating. And, sure enough, Mack and Sue were soon going at it with, for them, reckless abandon. I’ve been so delighted with the two of them as companions that I’m currently hoping that another generation of Bolitotherus will grace my abode.

For another, equally delighted response to Bolitotherus cornutus, please visit the Cornell Mushroom Blog, from which I have gratefully borrowed Kent Loeffler’s photo.

A living trilobite

Here, at last, is a bog posting set in a bog — specifically, Chickering Bog in Calais, Vermont. Like many so-called bogs, it’s really an intermediate fen, which means that it’s not isolated from ground water like actual bogs are.

Recently, I visited Chickering with my friend Charles Johnson, author of Bogs of the Northeast, and his naturalist wife Nona. As we strolled past buckthorn, golden saxifrage, and bog rosemary, I asked Charles how he became interested in bogs. Nona answered for him, saying, “But how can a person not be interested in bogs?”

Bazzania trilobata

Millipede weed: Bazzania trilobata, by Bob Klips

Soon we were surrounded by pitcher plants, and I bent down and sniffed one. Ah, what a sweet perfumey smell! People who’ve never sniffed a pitcher plant have no idea what they’re missing.

“While humans are a threat to bogs, maybe a bigger threat is dogs,” observed Charles. “They jump in, splash around, and drive out the small amount of oxygen that exists in a bog’s upper layer.”

“That’s why I prefer dogs in satay sauce rather than in a bog,” I said, citing one of my previous bog postings.

Charles and Nona, who loved dogs, understood. A bog (or even an intermediate fen) is a sacred place and should not be defiled.

I needed to answer nature’s call, and rather than defile Chickering with my uric acid, I ventured back into the woods. All at once, in a grove of hemlock, I saw a trilobite! Ancient though it was, the trilobite seemed no less alive than I was. Likewise, it had the distinct odor of sandalwood.

I delighted in the trilobite’s small teeth at the tip of each leaf. I delighted in the way the leaves overlapped each other like shingles on a roof. I even delighted in its resemblance to a millipede, so much so that in some place it’s been called “the millipede weed.”

Okay, I’m being a bit disingenuous here. What I saw was not a marine arthropod, but the liverwort Bazzania trilobata, and I somehow didn’t think “A Living Trilobata” has very much caché as the title for a bog posting. Still, Bazzania trilobata and trilobites are not altogether unlike each other. For liverworts are among the most primitive of all plants, perhaps even the most primitive, and their ancestors were almost contemporaneous with trilobites.

What’s the moral of this little tale? Heed nature’s call, and nature herself might come calling…


thanks to Bob Klips, a fellow admirer of wee green things, for kind permission to use his photo.