Living in America: Part 3, The Fruited Plain

[Apologies, readers, for once again enduring an exceptionally long, drawn-out absence in the middle of multiple post series. This is nothing new for SYDKAB, and it’s perhaps not all that surprising considering since 2012, I’ve moved to Hawai`i, started grad school, came to terms with going a different route within grad school, finished grad school, moved BACK to the mainland, gotten engaged, attempted to kick off a freelance career, and settled in a location to prepare for the birth of my first child. Here’s hoping things are a little more stable from this point out.]

This entry is Part 3 in a three-part series on organisms found in the United States in celebration of the country’s 240th birthday. Part 1, which featured some of the U.S.’s less widely-familiar vertebrate inhabitants, can be found here. Part 2 addressed a number of invertebrate species, which can be read here. This entry will go over some of the non-animal organisms that call the U.S. home, in particular, fungi and plants.

Not every life form in the USA bellows, sprints, or slinks its way across the landscape. Animals are great and all, but there is an entire world of organisms that silently spend their lives growing up from their anchored position in our sweet, sanctimonious soil, and they are no less important to the American wilderness. I’m of course talking about those multicellular cousins of the animal kingdom: fungi and plants. These organisms are far more than just idyllic backdrops for the charismatic, ambulatory stars of America’s natural history pageant, and the intricacies of their biology and diversity exceed the scope of existing in “amber waves”, or simply playing a part as filling for an insufferably Yankee Doodle dessert.

The United States is gifted with an exceptionally diverse set of biomes and ecosystems, meaning that within its borders, there are a remarkable number of species of flora….a great of them endemic to tiny, ultra-specific locations. An example of one of these local homebodies is pictured at the very top of this post. That sea of flaxen gorgeousness is made up of common monolopia (Monolopia lanceolata), a flower found in a variety of habitats from California’s Bay Area, south to the San Diego/Riverside part of the state. There are actually several species of Monolopia, and all of them are endemic to the Golden State. Appropriately enough, Monolopia is somewhat closely related to the greenswords and silverswords of Hawai`i, another set of unique plants endemic to the United States (and a remarkable example of what happens on isolated islands when evolution is given the “solitary confinement” treatment). These unassuming, attractive, yellow flowers are just the tip of the iceberg of the U.S.’s floral diversity, and included below is a small sampling of some particularly interesting stationary denizens:

Continue reading

Fungi

Fungi.

Quite possibly the most overlooked of the eukaryotic kingdoms. Not as mobile as their animalian close cousins, and they tend to be more discrete than the giant, showy plants. For most of us, at their best, they are an edible foodstuff, adding a bit of gummy texture to stir-fries. At their worst, they ruin an old strawberry or cause a bit of itchy feet, much to the chagrin of John Madden. They are the completely benign decomposers of the shadows, the wood-rotting, spongey, alien-like denizens of coastal forests and poorly ventilated bathrooms. Soft. Passive. Life’s unassuming and dutiful janitorial crew. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Oh.

The unfortunate insects above, now reduced to crumbling husks, were parasitized by a species of Cordyceps fungus. More closely allied with common bread mold than your average forest mushroom, Cordyceps make a decent living out of selectively infiltrating the bodies of various insects, growing inside of them, and eventually killing them and erupting through their exoskeletons. Some can even impact the minds of their insect hosts, making them into little zombies that position their bodies in such a way so that when they succumb to their insides being turned into a palatable slurry, the spore producing fruiting body (or “stroma”) of the fungus can have an advantageous location over the forest below, allowing for the maximum amount of exposure possible to other unwitting victims. Observe below:

Sir David Attenborough’s soothing narration, coupled with the music, make this video far more creepy than necessary. There’s something vaguely nightmarish about those wailing strings and circus-tent music playing alongside images of death-by-killer-fungus. Cordyceps are found worldwide, but enjoy higher density and diversity in the lower latitudes. As far as we know, they tend to go after insects only.

Continue reading