If you get out and hike in the local parks where wood chips and mulch are placed on the trails, you might have noticed a very interesting and highly odoriferous fungus, the octopus stinkhorn (Clathrus columnatus). The attached photos show the varied forms this strange orange fruiting body takes. The fruiting body originates from an underground structure, the mycelium, and somewhat resembles its relatives the puffballs and earthstars. The peculiar aspect of the life history of this fungus is that it really smells bad, but for a very good reason! The foul odor attracts carrion-eating flies and other insects which feed on the fungal slime and then spread the reproductive spores far and wide. The fungus itself feeds on dead wood and is thus a decomposer or saprophyte, and serves an important function in returning nutrients to the soil and recycling them. It does not cause disease but certainly makes people mad when it infects their compost piles or mulched gardens.
One question that I could not answer is why the stinkhorn is so brightly colored. Normally this would indicate that a plant’s fruit is inviting consumption by an animal with color vision. Maybe one of you could enlighten us on this point or perhaps it will remain a mystery, of which there are many in the natural world.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA