Undertakers of the Forest
They may be brainless, but lowly slime molds are nonetheless influential movers and shakers around the world. In the miniature life-and-death dramas playing out beneath your feet on a forest hike, species like this Lamproderma scintillans, captured by photographer Andy Sands in a forest in England, are lead actors in life’s final act: decomposition. As they prey on the bacteria, fungal spores, and other microorganisms that live in decaying plant matter, slime molds ooze around and over their rotting feeding grounds, facilitating the breakdown of their substrate. So far, scientists have described more than 900 species worldwide, and a 2008 study found that they are a major component in many soil types.
Despite their common name, slime molds aren’t actually fungi, as scientists once thought. DNA sequencing has revealed that the organisms should be classified as protists, single-celled organisms in the kingdom Protista. Like all protists, they start their lives as individual amoebas, but when food sources are scarce, they glom together to form long sticky lines, webbing out across a decaying log or mat of discarded leaves to better Hoover up their prey.
When it comes time to reproduce, species like the diminutive L. scintillans sprout stalks topped by bulbous sporangia, fruiting bodies that hold hundreds of spores. In just the right combination of temperature and moisture levels, these disco-ball-like orbs burst, raining down the start of the next generation. Each spore develops into a single-celled amoeba, beginning a new cycle of life—and death.
All of this plays out in silence, unnoticed by most passers-by. But after scouring the damp forest floor near Buckinghamshire for weeks with the help of a magnifying glass, reading glasses, and a flashlight, Sands—who has long been fascinated by slime molds—finally spotted these iridescent sporangia emerging from a dead holly leaf.
“I have always marveled at their wonderful colors and structures,” says Sands. “But only recently has photographic equipment become available to produce good images.” To capture this portrait, he mounted a device called a microscope objective to his camera, which allowed him to take multiple images at different focus levels, and then stack them to produce the final, stunning, image.
A lifelong naturalist, Andy Sands has been photographing wildlife for more than 25 years. His passion is British wildlife, and he particularly enjoys photographing birds in song, the small mammals that we seldom see, as well as insects and other invertebrates, documenting their lifecycles and behavior. Being an experienced field naturalist has enabled him to take intimate portraits of wild animals in natural surroundings. In recent years he has focussed extensively on coverage of fungi and slime molds.