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.

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.

8 responses to A Hairy Fungus

  1. Elaine Hooper says:

    I found a long black hair like mass inside my bird feeder, I new a squirrel could’nt get into it, My sister told me it was a fungus. but it was not on the ground just in side the sunflower seed container, weird hope it is not harmful.

    • gregdodge says:

      I would clean out the feeder (bleach), dry it, fill it back up with seed (make sure the seed isn’t fungal) and hang it.

  2. Sid says:

    Are the spores harmful to breath in? I can’t find the answer anywhere.

    • gregdodge says:

      I could find no reference which states that Phycomyces spores are toxic, but I didn’t find any statements saying they’re harmless either.
      I suppose, like any mushroom or fungus, the toxicity of the spores depends on the species and the person exposed to them, whether the individual is sensitive to the spores or not. Some folks are more sensitive than others and develop allergic reactions from exposure to spores.
      I’ve read where people have had anything from runny noses to severe illness or death from breathing mushroom spores.
      I don’t know if walking amongst the Phycomyces would expose you to vast amounts of spores and illness, but I wouldn’t purposely breathe in the spores.

  3. V Welsh says:

    Picking up dog poop in yard today (N California) and thought at first I saw remnants of a dead animal. No—was hairy fungus on dog poop. Fine, 3-4” gray/black “hair” with tiny black sporangia on tips. Newer short growth has yellow heads. Found 2 examples in opposites ends of shaded yard under redwoods. Took photos but don’t know how to post. Fascinating.

  4. Cerissa says:

    Thank you! I too have had this form under feeders where seed and poop accumulate. I cleaned a large hairy mass under the feeder this morning after seeing just a small patch the day before yesterday. Fast growing and disgusting! It’s pretty topical though, so fairly easy to remove. I appreciate your investigative work and finding out what fungus this is. Thanks again.

    • gregdodge says:

      You could scoop it up and toss it. To avoid having it form in the first place, keep the area below your feeder clean of fallen seed.

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