Nature Watch: The Wet Kingdom
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
We mainly experience nature through our relationships to plants and animals. There are other kingdoms, however, with fungi being one of the most important.
Mushrooms are the fruits and the most visible portions of a fungus, with the role of releasing spores to start new generations. While the scattering of spores may seem seed-like, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants.
Cool, wet weather promotes a plethora of mushrooms. A knowledgeable mycologist (fungi expert) can find 100 or more species in a single day trip to a local forest in November. The variety of mushroom shapes – spherical, honeycombed, fingerlike, crumpled, pointed or rounded cap, or bird’s nest – are set off by the myriad colors: white, gray, brown, black, yellow, blue, red and green.
Fungi are essential to terrestrial ecosystems, decomposing organic matter and releasing carbon dioxide for plant photosynthesis. Others provide minerals to tree roots. Deer eat selected fungal specimens and Douglas squirrels harvest them too, occasionally caching mushrooms in small forks of tree branches. A handful of species in our region are poisonous to humans so caution should be observed by those wanting to harvest wild mushrooms.
November is our rainiest month, making it ideal to search for the residents of the wet kingdom.
Fungus: Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)
For those new to mushroom identification, shaggy manes are a good place to start. When shaggies first arise, they are white, rounded-topped cylinders covered with flattened scales. As they age, the bottom edge flares out from the stalk, but they only barely approximate the familiar, flattened-cap shape of many mushrooms.
A feature of this mushroom is the ability to rise immediately with the advent of rain. They can be found as solitary individuals, in clumps or in a long row.
Shaggy manes mature quickly, liquifying to a dark, inky state. Occasionally, young and old specimens can be found clumped together. This mushroom can be seen along roadsides and in ballfields. They may grow through cracks in sidewalks and they’ve been known to come up through asphalt.
Fauna: Pacific Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus)
Slugs and mushrooms thrive in the moist forests of Camano and Whidbey Islands.
Pacific banana slugs are dull yellowish to olive-green, often with a scattering of black spots suggestive of ripe bananas, and may grow to a length of nine inches. They have two sets of tentacles; the upper pair detects light and movement, and the lower pair senses chemicals, including those indicating food. These tentacles can be withdrawn if the slug is threatened.
Slugs are related to snails, limpets and abalones. They ingest leaves, dead plants and other organic material. Mushrooms are often included in their diet, which helps to distribute the fungal spores.
Their mucus or slime has an agent that numbs the tongues of would-be predators, but some species, such as raccoons, have learned to roll them on the ground to remove the slime. They’re also eaten by northwestern salamanders and garter snakes.
Banana slugs mate throughout the year, and their translucent eggs are laid on leaves or logs.
There are several closely-related banana slug species. While they may not be everyone’s favorite animal, they do play an important role as decomposers that contribute to the recycling of nutrients.