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Nature Observations

Freezing Frogs and Fascinating Fungi (NFN Fungi Hike, Part 1)

I recently joined a local group of nature enthusiasts known as the Norfolk Field Naturalists. My very first outing with the Norfolk Field Naturalists was a hike through the Backus Woods Conservation Area with a local Fungi expert Leanne Lemaich. The hike was rewarding for the opportunity to meet up with others who share my passion for learning about the nature around us, and I learned a lot about the various fungi in the area. I used my camera extensively, capturing fungi and non-fungi (some new ones for me!) as you’ll see below. All in all, it was a great experience despite feeling as though I singlehandedly sponsored the next generation of mosquitoes with most of my blood supply…

Let’s begin with a brief primer on Fungi, because that’s how our hike began as well. Despite being classified so often with plants, fungi are actually more closely related to animals, but in any case they are neither. Unlike plants, fungi can’t produce their own energy, ie. they don’t contain chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leaves green and captures energy from the sun to create sugars/carbons (the incredible process known as photosynthesis). Instead, fungi feed on other organisms just like all animals do. Many fungi feed on dead organisms (termed saprophytic, or saprotrophic), but there are also many that feed on or within living organisms and still others form symbiotic relationships (which can grade into parasitism… the difference between symbiosis and parasitism is actually very grey-shaded). Although most of a fungus is composed of tiny threads that grow and proliferate out of sight, there are extraordinary structures that appear for reproductive purposes and these are collectively called “mushrooms”. I like to think of mushrooms as the equivalent of flowers, because they’re the visible part that facilitates reproduction just like the flowers in plants (via insects/other organisms/wind/rain/other weather processes in both instances). Now that we have a (very) basic idea of what fungi are, we can move onto some of the particular ones I observed and photographed on this hike, as well as many non-fungi spotted along the way!

Our first fungal find was a Bolete (Family Boletaceae), and the first incredible fact that I learned was that this mushroom couldn’t be identified without a… taste test. We hear so often about the dangers of foraging for mushrooms, because there are poisonous lookalikes to edible species and such, that I was very intrigued to learn that some mushrooms are identified by taste. Of course, I will reiterate the warning you will hear literally everywhere mushroom foraging is mentioned (and for good reason): DON’T EAT MUSHROOMS IF YOU’RE UNSURE OF THEIR ID.

Unidentified Bolete emerging from the leaf litter.

Next up was a familiar species even to me, a comparative novice when it comes to fungal identification: Turkey-tail (Trametes versicolor). This common species feeds on dead wood, and contains enzymes able to break down cellulose and lignin at the same time (Stephenson 2010). These are the two main components of plant cell walls, and are notoriously difficult for animals to digest.

Turkey-tail fungus growing out of the side of a log.

Several times during the hike, we came upon Coral fungi, which unsurprisingly resemble underwater corals in their branching structures. Our guide identified some of these as possible Ramaria species, but she also pointed out a false coral (Sebacina schweinitzii).

This next unassuming organism isn’t a fungus, but rather a strange living thing called a slime mould, specifically the Dog-vomit Slime Mould (Fuligo septica). The Dog-vomit Slime Mould is part of a group known as the plasmodial slime moulds, the Myxomycetes. Myxomycetes have a complicated and confusing life cycle. They have two feeding stages: the first consists of single cells which move and feed within their environment like amoebae (Stephenson 2010). These single cells reproduce and form a plasmodium, which is still a mass of what might be termed a single cell because it doesn’t have any cell walls, but it contains many nuclei (Stephenson 2010). In both of these stages, myxomycetes usually feed on bacteria or fungi that they encounter. I believe the Dog-vomit slime mould that I encountered was in this plasmodium stage, possibly preparing for its ‘final form’ which would be the production of fruiting bodies which would disperse tiny spores to start the process all over again (Stephenson 2010). Bizarre organisms… aliens of the forest floor.

Dog-vomit Slime Mould.

We encountered one other species of slime mould during the hike which was much more aesthetically pleasing than the one named after dog-vomit… the Red Raspberry Slime Mould (Tubifera ferruginosa).

Red Raspberry Slime Mould. For scale, note the blurry Harvestman (Opilione) to the right of the Slime Mould fruiting bodies.

While stepping through the undergrowth to approach some fungi, I disturbed some hopping amphibians at my feet. At first glance, we thought they were regular toads (ie. Eastern American Toads: Anaxyrus americanus) and some of them were, but one stood out as something distinctively different. This frog was one that I had never seen before, though I had heard its strange “quacking” calls during hikes in the past: a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Part of the reason I haven’t seen them is their superb camouflage, which consists of not only a generalized leaf-litter brown pattern. Wood Frogs also exhibit background matching: changing their skin to match their surroundings. While in breeding ponds in the Spring they are darker (and thus match the water more closely), and assume a lighter coloration when among the generally lighter leaf litter of their environment for the rest of the year (Wells 2007).

Wood Frog among the leaf litter. Pretty well camouflaged, I must say.

One of the facts that always comes to the fore of my mind when I think of Wood Frogs is not their strange call, or their camouflage, but the fact that they can tolerate being frozen. Wood Frogs, at the onset of winter, have physiological mechanisms that promote ice formation between their cells, and prevent ice formation within their cells. What this response amounts to is well described by Bernd Heinrich in Winter World: “the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead.” (Heinrich 2003, p 174). The incredible part of the story is that the Wood Frog is not dead, but rather will await the arrival of spring beneath the leaf litter and revive during warmer temperatures. They can in fact revive from frozen to active within a single day (Harding and Mifsud 2017). As Heinrich says, Wood Frogs are “biological marvels that challenge the limits of our beliefs of what seems possible.” (Heinrich 2003 p 175).

Another Wood Frog spotted during the hike.

As I mentioned above, Wood Frogs weren’t the only anurans (frogs and toads) spotted during our hike. On several occasions, we observed American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) on the forest floor. I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about toads right now, besides that they are amazing to look at if you take the time. Below are pictures of a particularly large toad (about the size of my fist) and a smaller toad, which was captured from an unusual angle. The angle really makes me reassess toads in general but maybe that’s just me.

For no particular reason, I’m going to pause here for Part 1! Keep an eye out for future parts, because during this hike I spotted many more fungi, and some more non-fungi as well.

References:

Harding, James and Mifsud, David. 2017. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region, Revised Edition.

Heinrich, Bernd. 2003. Winter World.

Stephenson, Steven. 2010. The Kingdom Fungi.

Wells, Kentwood. The Ecology and Behavior of Amphibians.

For similar Nature Observations in Norfolk County see:

-A Visit to Big Creek, Part 1 and Part 2

The Wonders of Wrens

Cuckoo Wasps and Carpenter Bees

Flies Falling to Fungi and Other Dipteran Observations

Fuzzy Flies and Song Sparrows

Leafhoppers, Lepidopterans and Longhorns

And for more nature observations, photos and natural history facts, follow me on instagram at norfolknaturalist