22-31 March 2002

Installment #609---Visitor

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During wet weather in winter and early spring, dead limbs frequently fall from hardwood trees at Hilton Pond Center. Some branches reveal an unusual attribute--translucent fleshy structures reminiscent of the external ear flaps of a mammal. Rather than being auditory devices for the trees, however, these growths are a fungus that's appropriately called "Tree-Ear."

Tree-Ear, Auricularia auricula, is common across North America, especially in the eastern United States. In dry periods, it is a thin, brownish-black, bark-hugging growth easily overlooked among the gray-green Crustose Lichens that often occur with it (below).

Tree-Ear, Auricularia auricula

Once winter rains arrive, however, Tree-Ear absorbs water, becomes saturated, and takes on a more obvious ear-like configuration that makes its common name understandable (see photo below).

Tree-Ear, Auricularia auricula

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Tree-Ear is one of the Jelly Fungi, a diverse group distantly related to mushrooms and toadstools. Although fungal classification is under seemingly constant debate by taxonomists, some experts believe the "Jelly Fungi" includes just two orders: the Auriculariales--meaning "ear-shaped"--of which Tree-Ear is a member, and the Tremellales ("trembling" or "jellylike"). Both groups are characterized by fleshy reproductive structures that give rise to microscopic white or transparent spores that are sausage-shaped. (For the record, some mycologists also consider a third order, the Dacrymycetales, to be one of the so-called Jelly Fungi.)

Hilton Pond Center is host to at least two kinds of Jelly Fungus: Tree-Ear and a more colorful yellow species called Witch's Butter, Tremella mesenterica. As its technical name suggests, Witch's Butter is in the Tremellales. This seasonal fungus also withers when there is little moisture, and then "blooms" with winter or spring rains (below). Jelly Fungi are seldom seen in summer in the Carolina Piedmont, perhaps because the weather is too hot and dry.

Witch's Butter, Tremella mesenterica

Surprisingly, the Jelly Fungi are edible; one recipe calls for Tree-Ear to be soaked, sliced, and added to casseroles to provide "snappy" texture. A related species in China is used regularly in soup, salads, and stir-fried dishes. The Chinese also believe Jelly Fungi improve breathing and circulation--an interesting assertion since chemicals found in some members of this group have been shown to inhibit blood clotting. It's reported that Witch's Butter is can be eaten, but that it has very little flavor.

Tree-Ear, Auricularia auriculaAlthough some fungi are parasitic and can kill trees, such is not the case for Tree-Ear (right); it is apparently a saprophyte that lives only on dead wood. Conversely, Witch's Butter is indeed a parasite, not on the tree itself but on other wood-decaying fungi--a great example of a complex relationship among seemingly simple organisms!

The bottom line is that Tree-Ear causes no harm, except--as our precise measurements with an electronic balance have determined--when it absorbs up to 63 times its dry weight in rainwater. As this occurs, the dead branch that bears the fungus can become so heavy it strips from the tree and crashes earthward toward the cranium of an unsuspecting passerby--about the only reason we would consider wearing a hard hat while walking the fungal-laden woods at Hilton Pond Center.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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22-31 March 2002


Dark-eyed Junco--2
Chipping Sparrow--9
American Goldfinch--1
Carolina Chickadee--1
White-throated Sparrow--2
House Finch--1

(with original banding dates)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (1)
05/30/01--after 2nd year male
Chipping Sparrow (2)

03/13/98--6th year
03/22/98--after 5th year
Field Sparrow (1)
03/15/01--after 2nd year
House Finch (1)
06/21/01--2nd year male

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

Ruby-throated hummingbird, adult male

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
This adult male, trapped on 30 March, was the first RTHU of 2002. He had been banded on 20 May 2001 and was only the second RTHU to appear in March at Hilton Pond Center. (Early arrivals typically appear late in the first week of April.)

6 species
16 individuals

19 species
948 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
40,667 individuals

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.