A Hairy Fungus

Above: Phycomyces, or pin mold, sporangiophores (stalks) and sporangia (round spore cases).

A hairy mass of mold or fungus caught the attention of Museum Volunteer Sam as she was filling bird feeders. Superficially, it looked like fur. A closer look hinted at some sort of mold or fungus.

At first I/we thought the stringy, filamentous fungus was growing up from the thistle or niger seed that was spilled along the ground near the bird feeders in Catch the Wind. A little research showed that this fungus, in the genus Phycomyces, grows from feces. Birds, as they tend to do, have been depositing feces amongst the seed as they feed on it.

Niger seed.
A hairy fungus growing from seed mass.
Sending out sporangia.

The fungus reproduces by sending up tall, 2, 3, or 4 inch stalks (sporangiophores) with small round spore cases at their tips (sporangia) filled with spores which are later released into the environment to establish new outgrowths or colonies of the fungus. These stalks are sensitive to light and surrounding objects. They’ll grow towards light and grow away from or around objects close to them.

In most of the photos here, you’re looking at the reproductive stage of the fungus, the sporangiophores and sporangia. And, you can see the slick, blackish, slimy material below the yellow-green material in some of the photos (top photo) which is the previous day’s growth.

Stalks (sporangiophores) and sporangia (yellow globes atop stalks).
The sporangia turn from yellow to seaweed green.
Sporangia.

There are at least two species in the genus Phycomyces, blakesleeanus and nitens. I’m not sure which is pictured here. As mentioned, it’s growing near a bird feeder which attracts many local songbirds. It’s not difficult to get a hit on the internet by Googling “hairy fungus.” But finding information on identification down to the species level is not as forthcoming.

Is there a correlation between the origin of the feces and a particular species of Phycomyces, mammal vs bird, carnivore vs herbivore, even between different species of bird or mammal? Does a specific Phycomyces only grow on a specific dung? I don’t know.

For now, I’m content to just call this fungus Phycomyces. Any input from you is welcomed.

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