Weird Animal Question of the Week

These Bizarre Fungi Resemble Corpse Fingers, UFOs, Tongues

Many fungi, including mushrooms, are so diverse they can look like other living things—including us. 

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Dead man's fingers, a type of fungus, grip dead or stressed trees, excrete a digestive enzyme into them, and then absorb the rotting material as energy.


Who'd have thought the alien invasion would be so stinkin' cute?

A new species of mushroom, Geastrum britannicum, native to the United Kingdom, was announced in the journal Persoonia earlier this year. To some, the fungi's limb-like stalks and rounded "heads" resemble tiny people.

"It's more of a camera-angle thing," Debbie Viess, of the Bay Area Mycological Society in California, says via email. Viess thinks G. britannicum looks more like mini-aliens. (Check out a mushroom named for Spongebob Squarepants.)

At Saturday's Weird Animal Question of the Week, we were so beguiled by these 'shroom shapes that we took the author's prerogative to look into more mushrooms that take on other personas.

Dead Man's Fingers

"A rather anatomical presentation" is how Timothy James, a mycologist at the University of Michigan, described these funky fungi.

Called dead man's fingers, these organisms grip dead or stressed trees, excrete a digestive enzyme into them, and then absorb the rotting material as energy.

The resulting mushrooms pop up out of the ground like zombie fingers, especially in areas near dead wood. (Also see: "Phallus Mushroom Found in Lam Dong, Vietnam.")

So horror movie props literally grow on trees.


If Earth itself ever stuck its tongue out at us, it might look like dark purple earthtongue or olive earthtongue mushrooms.

These fungi inhabit different types of grasslands in North America and Europe and appear around October—just in time for Halloween. (Read about a mushroom that looks like strawberries and cream.)

Bird's Nest Fungi

Bird's nest fungi, found worldwide, are essential to any look-alike list, James says by email.

This video from Cornell University's Plant Pathology Lab shows the organism growing into what looks like a bird's nest.

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The "eggs" inside bird's nest fungi are actually called peridoles—little cases full of spores.


The "eggs" inside it are peridoles, or little cases full of spores. According to the University of Minnesota website, these fungi are so small that a drop of water can send the peridoles flying out of the nest.


Of the roughly 100,000 known species of mushrooms, just 71 glow in the dark.

Mycena chlorophos is one of them, but only its cap, or top, lights up, "so they really do look like tiny glowing UFOs at night," Thomas Jenkinson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, says via email.

Jenkinson has seen these bioluminescent fungi firsthand on a research trip to the Micronesia, and calls them "a magical sight." (Also see "Fungi Need Some Love, Too.")

Why mushrooms glow is still a mystery, but a recent study in the journal Current Biology shed more light on a species called Neonothopanus gardneri.

That research found the fungi actually have a circadian clock with bioluminescent properties that peak at night. The glow attracts insects, which help disperse the mushrooms spores.

Or, just maybe, they also attract little mushroom aliens who need a ride home.

Weird Animal Question of the Week answers your questions every Saturday. If you have a question about the weird and wild animal world, tweet me, leave me a note or photo in the comments below, or find me on Facebook.


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