Slime moulds – the most remarkable organisms
“Slime-moulds may occur on objects of any and every sort. Their minuteness retires them from ordinary ken; but such is the extreme beauty of their microscopic structure, such the exceeding interest of their life history, that for many years enthusiastic students have found the group one of peculiar fascination, in some respects, at least, the most interesting and remarkable that falls beneath our lenses.’
– Thomas Macbride 1899 The North American Slime moulds.
At least once a year slime moulds make the news. On December 21 2016 the headline in Science Daily was ‘Giant cell blob can learn and teach’. The article explained how the plasmodial stage of a slime mould—essentially a moving feeding giant brainless cell—can transmit what it has learned to a fellow slime mould when the two combine.
Acellular or plasmodial slime moulds, also known as myxomycetes or myxogastrids, are ubiquitous opportunistic organisms. They are most abundant in temperate forests but they also occur in tropical forests, alpine areas, heathlands, grasslands, deserts, and arctic and sub‑Antarctic regions. In short, wherever there is organic material.
Myxomycetes were once included with plants when all living things were placed in just two kingdoms – plants and animals. When more kingdoms were created to encompass a vastly more complex world than was originally imagined, slime moulds were moved to the kingdom fungi. Indeed, they are often described as fungus‑like organisms and, like most fungi, they make only a relatively brief appearance at their fruiting body stage. However, they do not have any structures analogous to fungal hyphae, so when their pulsating feeding plasmodial stage was discovered they were moved to the animal kingdom. Then their single‑celled amoeboid feeding stage was observed and they were moved again, this time to the kingdom protozoa. However, this kingdom does not encompass organisms that have an amoeboid, plasmodial AND spore-bearing stage. They are now considered to be Amoebozoans but whether Amoebozoa is a supergroup or a kingdom is matter of some debate.
Before molecular research undertaken in 2013 established the 1000 million years of evolutionary history of the supergroup Amoebozoa to which myxomycetes belong, two fossils from 35–40 million-year-old Baltic Amber, the extant Stemonitis splendens and the extinct Arcyria sulcata, were the earliest evidence of myxomycetes. It is now believed that the common ancestor of myxomycetes was marine and existed before plants colonised the land, and that myxomycetes possibly co-evolved with plants in terrestrial habitats.
The terrestrial amoebozoan with the largest number of described species include the cellular and acellular slime moulds—the Dictyostelids and Myxomycetes respectively. Their predatory amoebae feed on bacteria and single-celled fungi such as yeasts. They live in soils rich in organic matter and play important roles including enhancing soil fertility though nutrient recycling. Research suggests that amoebae possibly participated in the initial enrichment of soils prior to the colonisation of land by plants although more work is needed to confirm this.
My research is about another stage in the lives of these intriguing organisms. The reproductive or spore-bearing stage comprises fruiting bodies that range in size from large amorphous blobs to tiny delicate structures little more than 2 mm high.
Black Sugarloaf (41° 23′ 42″ S 146° 48′ 23″ E) is located in central north Tasmania. It has well-drained, rocky, dolerite-derived soils and forests dominated by Eucalyptus species. Over the past one hundred or so years these have been cut for sawlogs, railway sleepers, telegraph poles and, more recently, for woodchips. 130 acres of forest at approximately 450 m above sea level is privately owned land protected by a conservation covenant. Current land management practices do not include removal or burning of coarse woody debris or the understorey vegetation. The areas most often surveyed for slime moulds (Big tree track, Thismia gully and Swamp) are all within about 100-200 metres from Home. Big Tree Track is visited at least once each day; the other areas are usually visited once a week.
‘Home’ is open eucalypt forest dominated by gumtopped stringybark (Eucalyptus delegatensis), black peppermint (E. amygdalina), stringybark (E. obliqua), white gum (E. viminalis) and swamp gum (E. ovata). The diverse understorey has silver banksia (Banksia marginata), forest daisybush (Olearia lirata), native cherry (Exocarpos cupressiformis), guitarplant (Lomatia tinctoria), prickly moses (Acacia verticillata), dollybush (Cassinia aculeata) and mountain correa (Correa lawrenciana). Ground layer vegetation includes sagg (Lomandra longifolia), forest flaxlily (Dianella tasmanica), cutting grass (Gahnia grandis), swordsedge (Lepidosperma sp.), bracken fern (Peridium esculentum) and other ferns. Some clearing of understorey vegetation for fire protection occurs around the house but old logs are left in situ.
‘The Swamp’ is approximately 100 metres north of ‘Home’. It is a damp shady area with a permanent small creek that overflows onto a level flood plain after extended rainy periods. The closed canopy forest is dominated by blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) and swamp gum (E. ovata) with a mid layer of tall swamp paperbark (Melaleuca ericifolia) and scented paperbark (M. squarrosa). The ground is mostly devoid of vegetation except for cutting grass, hard waterfern (Blechnum watsii) soft waterfern (B. nudum), treefern (Dicksonia antarctica) and mother shieldfern (Polystichum proliferum). There is a small patch of rainforest species including sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum) and the endemic heartberry (Aristotelia peduncularis). There are numerous logs and lots of leaf litter.
Big Tree Track
The Big Tree Track is so called because when we first moved to Black Sugarloaf a large old-growth tree, the only remaining such tree on Black Sugarloaf, was still standing. The tree fell in about 1990 and the stump and large log now provide substrate for numerous bryophytes, fungi and slime moulds. The 1 km track meanders through closed wet forest dominated by stringybark (Eucalyptus obliqua) and blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). The midstorey species include silver banksia (Banksia marginata), dogwood (Pomaderris apetala), blanketleaf (Bedfordia salicina), treefern (Dicksonia antarctica), forest daisybush (Olearia lirata), and musk (O. argophylla). The ground layer is mostly devoid of vegetation except for patches of hard waterfern (Blechnum nudum). There is a deep layer of leaf litter and numerous rotting logs covered in mosses, leafy liverworts and lichens.
Thismia Gully (TG) is a southeast facing slope approximately 100 metres downslope from ‘home’. It has a watercourse with an ephemeral creek that flows only after extended rainy periods. It has a closed wet forest dominated by blackwood and swamp gum. The mid layer vegetation is mostly dogwood (Pomaderris apetala), musk (Olearia argophylla) and native currant (Coprosma quadrifida). The ground is devoid of vegetation except for occasional ferns including hard waterfern, treefern and tender brake (Pteris tremula). There is a litter layer of leaves, many fallen small trees, particularly dogwood, and numerous very large old bryophyte-covered eucalypt logs.
Collecting slime moulds
In 2010 I started collecting myxomycetes in a tall wet eucalypt forest at Black Sugarloaf Birralee, central north Tasmania. I have several regular walking tracks which take me through different forest types including Melaleuca ericifolia (paperbark) swamp forest; ferny gullies dominated by Dicksonia antarctica (treeferns); wet eucalypt forest with several different Eucalyptus species, Acacia melanoxylon (blackwood), Banksia marginata (banksia), lots of ground ferns, copious quantities of fallen logs in various stages of decay, and other ‘coarse woody debris’, i.e. fallen branches, twigs and leaf litter. In short, fantastic slime mould habitat.
Since starting my research I have amassed over 1800 collections representing approximately 120 different species. This seems extraordinary given that all specimens have been collected within two kilometers of our house, and only 42 species had hitherto been officially recorded for Tasmania.
There are several conspicuous and easily recognisable myxomycetes including Lycogala epidendrum, Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa and Fuligo septica (also known as dog’s vomit slime, demon droppings, caca de luna (i.e. moon shit), or if you live in Tasmania, dog poo), but most species require examination of their spores, capillitium, columella, peridium and other microscopic features to confirm their identity (see glossary). With a stereo and a compound microscope, both with cameras attached, I take photos of and describe these features. All information is collated in colour plates which are compared with published texts. With the help of several reference books, scientific papers, and the microscopic examination of numerous collections, I have slowly made progress with their identification. Links to PDFs of colour plates of the species are arranged taxonomically under the heading Myxomycete Orders: Liceales, Echinosteliales, Trichiales, Physarales and Stemonitales. (Links to PDFs of the colour plates are arranged in alphabetical order on the disjunctnaturalist website.)
As well as attempting to identify all collections, I am aware that, because I have daily access to my study site, I am uniquely placed to observe aspects of myxomycetes ecology. For instance, in October 2017 eight different species appeared over a week on a small section of a fallen Bedfordia salicina log. Earlier in 2017 I observed numerous species on the litter that accumulated in the crown of treeferns (Dicksonia antarctica); several different Lamproderma species on bryophyte-covered logs and stumps; and the ‘very rare’ Elaeomyxa reticulospora that is a common species at Black Sugarloaf. These observations, as well as the story of the discovery of the ‘new’ species Alwisia lloydiae, have been recorded in various posts.
References used for identification include Martin and Alexopoulos (1969); Poulain et al. (2011); Neubert et al. (1993-2000); Stephenson & Stempen (1994); Stephenson (2003); Nannenga-Bremekamp (1991); and various scientific papers and websites. However, many Australian myxomycetes ‘don’t quite fit published descriptions‘ (S.L. Stephenson pers. com.) and species in some genera (e.g. Cribraria) are notoriously difficult to identify.
Duplicates of most collections have been lodged at the National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL). These may be requested for study by researchers associated with registered institutions.
For more information:
14 August 2021 – ABC Science Show:
Creeping slime moulds hunt in Tasmania (ABC Off-Track): https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/offtrack/hunting-for-slime-moulds-in-tasmania/8687260
16 March 2018 – ABC’s Gardening Australia:
I regularly post images and descriptions of slime moulds on Instagram:
In December 2022 I published the 4th edition of ‘Where the slime mould creeps’. It will be available from local (Australian) bookstores in Tasmania (Fullers in Hobart and Petrarchs in Launceston) and at The Botanical Bookshop, Australia National Botanic Gardens, Canberra in January 2023. It is available online through Nokomis Publications, Fungimap Inc. and the NHBS (see links below).
Available in Australia from Nokomis Publications and Fungimap
Available worldwide from NHBS
Where the slime mould creeps introduces the fascinating world of myxomycetes, the acellular slime moulds. It describes their intriguing life cycle and important ecological roles as decomposers, nutrient recyclers and food for numerous invertebrates. It reveals their exquisite evocative forms through microscope and camera, along with time lapse images that capture the dramatic changes in colour and shape as the fruiting bodies mature.
The past ten years has seen a burgeoning interest in slime moulds, with photographers, students and other enthusiasts captivated by their singular beauty. With more people looking, we now know how ubiquitous and common they are. This popular and informative book—now in its fourth edition—is a lavishly illustrated photographic guide to their identification, and an account of a passion for slime moulds that has led to the discovery of a wealth of species living in a tall wet eucalypt forest in central north Tasmania.