Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A Silver Lining to a Dog Owner’s Nightmare: Microstoma protractum

red fungus, Microstoma protractum early spring


Noun: the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way

My good friend, (who shall remain nameless so as not to further embarrass her), joined me for a walk in a forest a fifteen minute drive away. As always, I brought along my dog Ruby, and my friend brought along her dog — Ruby’s best buddy, Fritz. My friend offered me her plasticized “dog hammock” to cover the backseat of my car, but I poo-pooed the need for such protection. It had been dry, so I didn’t expect the dogs to get into the black smelly muck that is more easily found later in the year. Really, what could happen? 

Best buddies, Fritz (left) and Ruby (right)

Though it was a gloriously warm day, here in central Ontario it was still a few weeks too early for morels and there was still the odd patch of snow lurking beneath brush piles. Normally in early spring I have no trouble finding all kinds of interesting fungal surprises that have overwintered but, since it hadn’t rained in a week, such things as jellies and crusts and delicate cups that swell when wet, had shrivelled into invisibility. It was such a beautiful day, though, that I was happy enough to simply take pleasure in the company of my friend and the gleeful antics of our dogs racing between the trees.

Encoelia fascicularis; Merismodes sp.; Stictis radiata; Arachnopeziza aurata; Tremella mesenterica, Peniophora incarnata; Exidia recisa
A few early spring finds (from top to bottom, left to right):
Encoelia fascicularis; Merismodes sp.; Stictis radiata; Arachnopeziza aurata;
Tremella mesenterica feeding on Peniophora incarnata; and Exidia recisa.

We were nearing our turnaround point when, for a moment, we lost sight of Fritz. But then we saw him. What was he doing? Oh, dear…he was rolling in something. (If the reader has never been a dog owner, or is particularly squeamish, he/she may wish to skip down to *)

“S…t,” we both said simultaneously. 

Ruby's a cougar

Now anyone who owns a dog is likely to be familiar with this vile scenario. Be it the putrid remains of a dead animal, greasy raccoon scat, or a freshly dropped cow patty, nothing makes some dogs happier than rolling in such nastiness, usually in an anatomically deliberate way, specifically focused on grinding the offensive matter all around the neck, ears, and collar. Which is all fine and good when you’re near home and have a hose ready. It is not fine and good when you need to get home in a car, particularly a car that does not have a dog hammock protecting the backseat.

Even ten feet away from Fritz we could smell it. It was, indeed, feces. A lot of feces, smeared all through the dog’s long, silky fur.

My friend, knowing that it was unlikely that I was going to let Fritz into my car in this state, first comically tried to clean him in a vernal pond using fistfuls of last year's leaves that I handed her—a valiant attempt, but completely ineffective. In fact, the wetting and smearing of the foul substance only worsened the smell.

dog and oyster mushrooms
Both dogs love mushrooming. Fritz can be a bit of a goof!

Fortuitously, there was a river not far away and, equally fortuitously, some rags and a towel we could retrieve from the car on the way, so we headed in that direction, both my friend and I trying to keep upwind of the dog as we walked. The stench was so unbelievable it was laughable. At least, I thought it was laughable; it wasn’t my dog who had to be cleaned.

When we finally got to a shallow area at the “delta” of a spring creek running into the river, which was racing high with melt water, my friend rolled up her pant legs and waded in, dragging Fritz along with her. While Fritz was being dunked and vigorously scrubbed, Ruby splashed back and forth on the muddy shore, barking like mad to express her solidarity with her friend during his worrisome ordeal.  

*A "Good" Find

My friend finally released the newly car-worthy Fritz. Trailing streams of water from his sopping coat, he bounded directly towards me and Ruby. That, of course, was the exact instant that I spotted two little red nubbins poking out of the mud between Ruby's still dancing feet. I’m not quite sure how I managed to scoop them up before they could be either crushed or buried by a dog paw, but I did. I was now, however, a little wet since Fritz, who'd not yet had a chance to shake, managed to collide with me like a wet mop.

size Microstoma protractum
The cups of my Microstoma protractum were small,
but they can be up to 2 cm. wide

On closer examination, there were actually three nubbins, two of which were clearly cups. I carefully rinsed the mud and sand off them in the river. Oddly, they had very tough stems that looked as if they had rooted in the mud. I had no idea what I'd found, but I immediately declared to my friend that it was a "good" find.

"...that you would never have found if Fritz hadn't rolled in that s...t!" she said, delighted to be so easily exonerated for her dog's instinctual behaviour.

See? Serendipity.

Microstoma protractum

Once I got my find home and visually keyed it out in Ascomycete Fungi of North America (Beug, Bessette, Bessette), they were easily identifiable as Microstoma protractum (sometimes called M. protracta, an unnecessary feminization of the species name since the root "stoma" is sexless). 

Felted hairs on pseudorhtiza of Microstoma protractum
Rinsed and dried, my M. protractum had dense,
felted hairs the full length of its pseudorhiza.

young Microstoma protractum pore opening
A hair-rimmed pore eventually opens into a torn-edged cup (with dog hair).

They're fascinating little characters, both macroscopically and microscopically. Apparently, had I not been in such a hurry to pluck them from the danger of prancing dog paws, I could have followed each tough little stem, or pseudorhiza, (a rootlike subterranean elongation of a stem), to a "mother" pseudorhiza growing from a buried piece of rotting wood. This perennial "mother" can give rise to aerial stalks each year, producing more and more cups from one year to the next. It is no wonder that so many common names in other languages refer in some way to this fungus being like a tulip: dense older colonies of M. protractum look impressively like beds of tulips. 

Microstoma protracta, torn tulip cup
In German, M. protractum is called Eingerissener Tulpenbecher, or "torn tulip cup."   

M. protractum is a northern latitudes/montane species from the Sarcoscyphaceae family,  occurring in Europe, Japan, Russia, and North America. It has been found only twice in Great Britain, in Scotland, first in 1890, and then exactly 20 years later in the same location and is now likely extinct. It is also rare enough in Poland to be a protected species. Its sibling, M. floccosum, is much more common, much hairier around the rim, and does not usually grow from buried wood.

Microstoma protractum red pigment paraphyses
The dichotomously branched paraphyses contain plentiful pigment granules.

Microscopically it's startlingly colourful due the plentiful amounts of pigment found in its dichotomously branched paraphyses, granules that turn green in Meltzer's. The spores are large, elliptic-fusoid (25-50 x 10-16µm), usually with one large oil droplet and several smaller ones. 

Microstoma protractum spores
M. protractum spores range in size from 25-50 µm long.
Microstoma protractum asci
The asci have squiggly "tails."

The long asci (200-275 x 20-23 µm) are particularly interesting. Not only do they have quite lovely squiggly tails, they also each have a very cool operculum (lid that opens to release the spores) that, instead of being apical, opens to the side, which makes the empty asci look like eyeless sea creatures with their mouths open.  

Ascus of Microstoma protractum has orperculum
The asci have strangely lateral operculi (lids that open to release their spores). 

The only thing disappointing about this fabulous little asco was that — being forced to prematurely pluck them — I did not get any pictures of them in situ. Though these lovely little red cups are, indeed, often found in moist areas just after the snow melts, I have not been able to find any reference to their growing while submerged under water, which mine must have done — the mud they had erupted from had clearly been very recently under water (earlier that day? the day before?), probably for a duration of at least several weeks while the snow was melting, and the two that were mature enough to open were packed with mud. It would have been nice to have a record of them growing in this peculiar habitat.

microstoma protractum grows in moist places

So I went back to see if there were more that I had missed. Though there was nothing to find in the mud beside the water in the spot I'd found the first ones, tucked behind a log a few meters away and a few feet up from the water, I found another patch — not exactly a bouquet, but enough for some photos!


I went back four days after I found the second batch and found another poking out of the original spot. Here's a picture:
microstoma protractum in mud


Ascomycete Fungi of North America: a mushroom reference guide. By. Michael W . Beug, Alan E. Bessette, and Arleen R. Bessette. 2014. Austin: University of Texas Press

Spinner, B. The Larger Cup Fungi in Britain, Field Mycology Volume 1(4), October 2000

Microstoma protractum on Funghi in Italia 

Microstoma protractum on Mycoquebec


  1. Such a prolific and eloquent mind! Thank you for this very entertaining publication.

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