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Say, weren’t you curious about slimy molds in nature?

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Slimy mold may not be something you want to find on your leftovers, but it has a certain beauty, don't you think?

Slimy mold may not be something you want to find on your leftovers, but it has a certain beauty, don’t you think?

Most people have never even heard of slime molds (or myxomycetes, as they’re known to biologists), yet they grow on every continent and right in our own backyards, including the Ozarks.

Dr. Steven Stepheson

Dr. Steven Stephenson

Now these incredibly unique and diverse species are about to get some recognition, thanks to Dr. Steve Stephenson, a Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Arkansas and internationally known expert on slime molds and fungi.

He will talk about these unpleasant life forms at 7 p.m. Friday at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, 4601 S. Chrisman Avenue in Springfield, just in time to give you something to dream about through the weekend.

Neither plant nor animal, slimy molds are members of the kingdom “protista.” They’ve been gobbling up bacteria for several hundred million years. Because they reproduce by spores, they were thought to be fungi until fairly recently, doing their biological duty by consuming bacteria (thus cleaning out and recycling ecosystems’ decaying matter), even in extreme environments like deserts and tundras- and include at least 900 different species of all shapes and colors.

They contribute to the decomposition of dead vegetation, and feed on bacteria, yeasts, and fungi. For this reason, slime molds are most often found in soil, lawns, and on the forest floor, most commonly on decaying logs. In tropical areas, myxomycetes are also common on inflorescences, fruits and in aerial situations (e.g., in the canopy of trees). In urban areas, they are found on mulch or even in the leaf mold in gutters, and also grow in air conditioners, especially when the drain is blocked. One of the most commonly encountered slime molds is the yellow Physarum polycephalum, found both in nature in forests in temperate zones, as well as in classrooms and laboratories.

Because they’ve been around so long, they have evolved to be able to move, grow, find resources, and adapt to their environments incredibly efficiently, despite their lack of a brain or even a central nervous system.

Dr. Stephenson is the author of ‘Myxomycetes: A Handbook of Slime Molds’ as well as other books and papers on related fields.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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