- Education and Science»
- Life Sciences
Alien Invasion! Star Jelly, Slime Molds & Zombie Ants
Fungus Among Us
The largest living thing on Earth is not a sperm whale, not a giant redwood, and not a giant squid.
The largest living thing on earth is a fungus.
When I say large, I mean LARGE.
I’m talking about a thing that covers 2,384 acres of soil in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains—that’s about four square miles.
The fungus isn’t visible everywhere because most of it lies just underground, but here and there small outcroppings of mushrooms can be seen at the base of trees. These buttons are not individual organisms—they are the scattered reproductive organs of the single humongous organism.
The giant Oregon fungus, known as Amillaria ostoyae , causes root disease by extending slender filaments called hyphae which then secrete digestive enzymes and eat the root system, thus killing large swaths of conifers in the US and Canada.
Based on the size of the Oregon fungus, scientists estimate its age to be at least 2,400 years, but most acknowledge this single underground monster could be as old as 8,600 years.
That would make it one of the oldest living organisms on Earth as well as the largest.
If you think the prospect of a space alien invasion is scary, you don’t know much about fungus.
In fact, even scientists don’t know as much about fungus as they’d like.
Every new discovery starts a new argument.
Once thought to be closer to plants than animals, mycologists (people who study fungus) now believe that fungi are much closer to animals than plants, and were more likely than not to be the crucial catalyst that allowed life to crawl out of the seas and onto land.
Even today, life could not exist on earth without fungi.
In the seas, yes.
On earth, no.
Where do these strange organisms come from?
UFO fans probably already know about star jelly, (also called star shot or star slime), but lots of other people probably don’t.
Still, reports of quivering gelatinous masses that appear overnight in yards and on mountainsides have been occurring since medieval times.
The legends and lore that accompany such lumps of strange goo connect star jelly to the appearance of comets or meteors, hence the popular name.
But no one really knows for sure what these globs are.
In 1950, police in Philadelphia PA found a six foot mass of jelly that was later the inspiration for the famous horror/sci fi flick The Blob. When four policemen tried to pick it up, the brown jellylike mass dissolved in their hands into sticky goo.
In 1979, after a Persiod meteor shower, a woman awoke to find her lawn covered in purplish lumps of goo that would she could not dissolve with a garden hose.
Most recently, lumps of translucent jelly have been showing up in the Cumbrian Fells, a geographical feature of the Lake District of Northern England.
Samples taken of star jelly show it to be composed mostly of water, with no signs of DNA of any kind. A study commissioned by National Geographic confirmed the lack of DNA and the rapid evaporation.
Even weirder, the gelatinous substance disappears entirely within hours of being collected. More than one sample was put away overnight in a test tube, only the have the analyst discover an empty tube the next day.
A number of organisms are known to produce slime and goo as part of their natural life cycle, but what makes star jelly a mystery is that it is devoid of DNA that would point to the organism that made it.
So while debunkers can easily toss off a pat explanation (maybe that’s the wrong way to phrase it, sorry) ranging from slime molds to digested frogs to moss slime blown about by stiff winds, the mystery behind what creates star jelly remains.
If fungi seem exotic, unpredictable, and alien, meet the slime mold!
Slime molds act like fungi for part of their lives, and like animals for the other part.
Usually they crawl along the forest floor for short distances (in their animal phase) hoovering up rotting leaves and other mulch, before dispersing clouds of spores and starting out as fungi all over again.
Once thought to be a highly unusual fungus, slime molds have more recently been re-categorized and are now believed to be closer to simple animals like amoebas and protozoa.
Simple they aren’t, however.
The life cycle of a slime mold can be incredibly complex, unlike anything human beings could imagine. Some reproduce sexually, some asexually, and some… oh never mind.
The point here is that while you are sleeping soundly in your bed, worrying about bank failures and the jobless rate and your waistline, something you would never in a million years believe is real is quietly crawling along a forest floor near you.
I am NOT making this up.
Here's something uncomfortable to think about on a warm summer's night:
The adaptable little cordyceps mushroom has learned how to enter the body of an Amazonian ant and start influencing its behavior in subtle, and then not-so-subtle ways.
This crafty mushroom gets on the ants’ feet as a mold, and then burrows inside the insect, slowly eating the ant from the inside out.
As the mushroom takes over more and more of the ant’s innards it coaxes the ant to start climbing higher and higher. Before the ant starts this precipitous and nonsensical upward climb, it starts to stagger around erratically, much like your standard zombie.
Other animals avoid the zombie--and for good reason.
When the zombie ant reaches a high spot that the cordyceps mushroom likes, the fungus spreads rapidly into ant's head, busts through the ant’s skull, and sends its spores into the wind in search of other ant meals.
By the time the cordyceps spores break through the ant head, the ant is quite dead, of course.
What was once an ant is now a fruiting mushroom.
Different types of organisms are able to zomb-i-fy different types of insects.
So far, none of these critters have gotten into humans.
Or have they?
Panspermia, Neopanspermia, Geopanspermia & Lovecraftian Nightmares
Panspermia refers to the idea that life originated on another planet and was seeded here on earth, either deliberately or accidentally.
Neopanspermia suggests that some life originated on earth, and other forms of life came here from other worlds.
Panspermia is a one shot evident. Something came to earth from outer space and life began, evolving on its own to its present state.
Neopanspermia can be ongoing. In other words, even now, according to a neopanspermia perspective, spores or microbes from outer space might be circling earth. At any given moment, some of the life forms here are from here, and some are not.
Fungi and bacteria have been detected in the high cold biosphere over Earth.
The assumption has been that these organisms end up there after storms, volcanic eruptions, and unusually high winds. However, no one has been able to definitively demonstrate that these tiny life forms really ARE from Earth.
That theory is called 'geopanspermia'.
But they could be from anywhere.
In 1927, H.P Lovecraft published a short story called “The Colour Out of Space,” about a meteor that crashes near a remote farmhouse in the wild hills west of Arkham Massachussetts.
The meteor itself soon shrinks down to almost nothing, but it leaves behind a ‘colour’, an alien essence that infects everything it touches, drains the life force out of it, and drives the people who perceive it mad.
Published first in Amazing Stories , “The Colour Out of Space” is often cited as the first American space invasion story. The aliens in this story are not little grey men with huge eyes, but something closer to fungal spores.
Which brings me to the point of this whole silly article:
Life is strange.
Life is stranger than even experienced scientists can say.
While we watch the skies for space ships, bright lights, and government conspiracies, the aliens could already be right here among us, so tiny and bizarre as to be nearly unnoticeable, seeping into every pore and structure, changing our world, changing us, without anyone even noticing that it is happening.
You've heard the kids sing about it: Fungus among us which one is the fungus?
Have a nice day!