How the Lost Hyphae Found Their Home

How the Lost Hyphae Found Their Home

Long, long ago, in the early days of forest in El Yunque, a mass of threadlike strands of fungi known as hyphae appeared in the very top of a tree. They were wrapped around a branch that was more than 30 meters (100 feet) above the ground, and above them was only blue sky and hot sun.

"Now, how did we get here?" one of them asked the others. 

No one knew the answer. They all agreed that something did not seem right. They felt excessively hot and dry, and they also felt a bit of dizziness. Not only were they not sure how they got there, they weren’t sure where they belonged.

They began to worry. The more they worried, the more tangled with each other they got. "We must relax," pleaded one of them. "If we don’t, we will never get out of this mess." 

So the hyphae relaxed. They straightened out and loosened from each other. They began to slip down the branches of the tree, one after another, lower and lower. Soon they were in the middle of the tree. Here the temperatures were slightly cooler, the leaves shaded them from the sun, and the air was more humid. But although this was much better, the middle of the tree did not seem right to them either.

They relaxed a bit more. Soon they were on the ground, next to the trunk of the tree, within a pile of leaves. They all agreed that this was ever so much better. They liked the moist soil, the wet leaves plastered to the forest floor, the deep shade, and the pleasant temperatures. This was a place where they could put down hyphae and remain for a while.

Yet it still didn’t feel like home. They weren’t sure they could survive even here. Something was missing. They hungered after something else.

Of course, everyone who reads this story knows that fungi as a kingdom are among the most widely distributed organisms on the planet Earth, even though each species has a limited range. Within the rainforest of El Yunque, where our lost hyphae live, fungi are positively … well, mushrooming! Hundreds of species — perhaps as many as a thousand — flourish on the damp, dark rainforest floors. That is their preferred habitat, or place to live. In the mountainous parts of the forest, some types of fungi bind fallen leaves together. By doing this, they help keep the leaves and other organic matter (matter that comes from living organisms) from sliding down the forest slopes. Because of the high humidity in El Yunque, fungi have more favorable growing conditions than slime molds, another organism of the forest floor. (Slime mold — yecch! — the very name evokes something you wouldn’t want to come across on a dark and stormy night.) 

A day later, a branch crashed down next to the lost hyphae. They now knew what they were missing. It was wood. Some fungi get their nutrients from leaves and other debris on the forest floor. Others make their homes under dead wood. They anchor their hyphae into the wood to get their nutrients. Thus, they are called wood decomposers. The lost hyphae, it turned out, were wood decomposers of a species known as the veiled stinkhorn. Now they had a perfect home. After a rather harrowing day, they once again found their niche, their place in the forest community.

To my knowledge, no other mats of veiled stinkhorn hyphae were ever again found in the tree canopies of El Yunque Forest.

And that is how the lost hyphae found their home.

Aliens in El Yunque? You Decide
A local publication, titled Mysteries, recently reported a strange glow on the ground, on a hillside near the Icacos River in El Yunque Forest. Expert sources consulted by the magazine have declared the glow to be extraterrestrial. They confirm that the glow first appeared the morning after several local farmers sighted a UFO hovering over the forest.

Scientists, on the other hand, deny that the glow is extraterrestrial. They say it is the product of certain fungi that grow in the forest. In fact, they add, there are so many fungi in El Yunque that any waste that falls to the ground is quickly consumed by these hungry decomposers. At night, some of them give off a dull glow. If enough of them are in one area, the result can look very eerie. Along some trails the greenish yellow glow can serve as lanterns to light the trail.

Which version is the truth?