Pilobolus crystallinus

Sorry about the two day midweek break in BPotD — it wasn’t intentional, but something came up that needed all of my attention.

Another thank you to Orthotrichum@Flickr (aka Bob Klips) of Ohio, USA for sharing one of his photographs (original image via the Botany Photo of the Day Flickr Pool). If you’d like to enjoy more of Bob’s photographs and nature writings, visit Dirty Trees: Bob’s Brain on Botany.

Bob’s written about these intriguing fungi in the comments associated with his photograph, so I’ll quote him to start: “The ‘hat-tossing’ zygomycte fungus Pilobolus… decomposes the droppings of grass-eating herbivores. It is spread by the passage of spores through the animal’s digestive tract. Each sporangiphore [spore-bearing structure] aims toward the sun while it is low on the horizon, and propels the mass of spores up to a meter away from the dung.” The spores then stick to the foliage of nearby plants, ensuring they will be ingested and transported by the next hungry herbivore.

The Plant Pathology lab at Cornell University has an 18-hour time lapse movie of Pilobolus crystallinus. With photographs taken at 1-minute intervals for the final third of the movie, it is easy to see that the sporangiphores immediately collapse upon spore ejection. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given that the internal pressure prior to expulsion builds to somewhere between 2.8 to 5.6 kg/cm2 (40-80 psi). For the math behind this figure, see John Tuthill’s May 2005 paper, Evaluating the explosive spore discharge mechanism of Pilobolus crystallinus using mechanical measurements and mathematical modelling (PDF).

Or, for a poetical ode to Pilobolus crystallinus and Dr. Seuss, see The Fung in the Dung, via Tom Volk’s Fungi web site.

UBC Botanical Garden Resource Link: local photographer Jay Black (aka The Blackbird@Flickr) recently spent some time in UBC Botanical Garden and took this series of photographs of a rufous hummingbird in the Garden that you may enjoy. Also, he’s made the most inventive photograph of the tunnel connecting the two main areas of the Garden that I’ve seen to-date.

Pilobolus crystallinus

16 responses to “Pilobolus crystallinus”

  1. Bonnie

    My goodness. They look like jewels — gold and crystal tears.

  2. Deborah Lievens

    Fabulous picture and I really enjoyed the linked video. I have known about Pilobolus for almost 40 years as a free form dance group started at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH – and still performing. I was not botanically minded in the early 70s and made no connection whatsoever to fungi. Especially dungal fungi. I don’t how the group came up with the name. And, by the way, Theodore Geissel was a Dartmouth grad.

  3. Anne

    Is this how the dance troupe got it’s name?

  4. bev

    Very cool photo and links! I especially like the “fung in the dung” – who said botanists have no sense of humor??!!

  5. nadia Q.

    Today’s photo was beautiful, creepy and cool all together! Great photo today and write up!

  6. Lisa Mastro

    When I was an undergrad, I worked for a mycologist (Dr. James Bourret) who did research on another Pilobolus species. It was my job to make the cultures and harvest the spores. I still remember the recipe: 15 g agar, 15 g of rabbit dung and I believe 1 liter of distilled water. Autoclave. Boy, was that always a smelly time! A fabulous fungus though!

  7. phillip

    …oooh…!…that is awesome….!

  8. phillip

    i’m sorry to have to say…no ‘scratch and sniff’ here…ha..!

  9. Phil Gates

    I came across the following wonderful description in a paper published by W.B. Grove, read at a meeting of the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopical Society on 17th. April 1883, entitled On the Pilobolidae, with a synopsis of the European species, and a description of a new one. “Once, when I was examining a tuft with a lens I heard a faint sound proceeding from another tuft six inches off, and at the same instant felt myself struck near the middle of the forehead; the blow was accompanied by a sensation as if a tiny drop of water had fallen there. On looking in a glass I could see a little black sporange [sic] adhering where it struck, and it remained there for several hours. I immediately took the patch of P.kleinii from which it came (and I should mention that the stems of these specimens were bent almost at a right angle under the influence of the one-sided light beneath which they had grown) into an empty room, where I placed it with the upper portions of the bent stems pointing towards the window. I then laid a number of sheets of white paper around it, in the same horizontal plane; carefully closed the door and left it for an hour. This was just about midday. On returning I found all the sheets covered with a multitude of black dots, which a lens revealed to be the sporangia; each sporangium was surrounded by a brownish stain, produced by the liquid ejected at the same time. On measuring the distances to which the sporangia were thrown I found that a majority lay between three and four feet, but nearly a score lay at a greater distance than four feet, and the farthest that I could find at a distance of 4ft. 10in. When we consider that the utmost height of the individual fungi from which these bomb-shells proceeded did not exceed one tenth of an inch, and that therefore the last mentioned sporangium was thrown to a distance of nearly 600 times the height of the plant which threw it, we can form some idea of the enormous force exerted in this instance. It is as if a man of average height were able to throw his own head to a distance of nearly two thirds of a mile.”

  10. Phil Gates

    Bonnie comments that they look like jewels. So did W.B. Grove, back in 1883 (see my earlier comment). Here is his description of Pilobolus:
    “Imagine an oval translucent vase of exquisite outline, carved from a single diamond, not indeed of the finest water, but brought from South African Fields, tinged with a delicate yellow colour. Place beneath this a gracefully curved slender stem, of crystal clear, and where they join let a circlet of the purest gold lie coiled within the tube. Then let a beautiful and limpid light radiate from every part. To enhance its effect, take a piece of blackest jet, shaped into a perfect hemisphere. Polish its surface until it shines like a Venetian mirror, and gently poise this sooty crown over the mouth of the transparent vase. Let glistening strings of orient pearls hang around in graceful festoons, and imagine the whole of this priceless work reduced in size till the total height exceeds not a twentieth of an inch. To complete the contrast, thickly strew these fairy jewels over the half-dried surface of a cake of cow dung, and you have imitated nature as far as your powers allow. To mortals this treasure is known by the name Pilobolus, and the particular species I have pictured is called Pilobolus kleinii.”
    They don’t write scientific papers like that any more!

  11. Sara

    Ok, so people study the wierdest things! Such a tiny fungus on a pile of manure… what would possess someone to get on their knees to examine that? I guess if the pile got white and fuzzy? yeah. right. It is lovely and facinating to read about, but going there in the first place..yikes.

  12. Elham

    wow………really intriguing! 😀

  13. elizabeth a airhart

    after 18 hours of watching the video
    and reading and linking i for one
    am going to have a drink go to bed

  14. Pilobolus (the dance company)

    To Deborah and Anne,
    Yes, this is how Pilobolus Dance Theater got its name. When Pilobolus was founded in 1971 at Dartmouth College, the father of Jonathan Wolken, one of our founding members who passed away last month, was conducting research on pilobolus, a small yet amazing fungus. The name, for lack of a better term, “stuck.” It has come to represent a lot of things in our 40 years of existence. Our dance company, like the fungus, is small (only 7 dancers in the main company and a handful of office staff) yet amazing, we always aim for the “light,” and we also undergo a special process of our own, our choreographic process, to create new work.
    Jeffrey @ Pilobolus (the dance company)

  15. Lisa Mastro

    I have tickets to see you in Long Beach in October! I’ve been wanting to see you for years. How ironic.

  16. Doby Green

    It is important to study scatology, the study of excrement. Otherwise we would have no understanding of the large number of organisms that use it, need it, and live in it to reproduce
    and carry other organisms and influence all life around. Being squeemish is not a matter for concern any more than in handling the sewage of humans is necessary too.

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