Fungi are widely misunderstood and often under-appreciated, yet they are a crucial component of the planet’s ecosystems. Though they may sometimes look bizarre and otherworldly to us, they are nevertheless unparalleled experts at breaking down organic matter and according to some experts, their latent superpowers may potentially even save the world.
Aiming to raise awareness and appreciation of the smallest of fungi, and also mysterious slime molds (also called a variety of monikers like Myxogastria and Myxomycetes), American photographer Alison Pollack uses special techniques to capture the magic and beauty of these tiny organisms.
As Pollack explains:
“These may look big in the photo, but they are really tiny, barely visible to the naked eye, each less than one millimeter tall. To photograph such tiny fungi with high magnification, I used a 10x microscope lens adapted to my camera, and a technique called focus stacking. The camera is mounted on a finely tuned rail, and the camera is moved between each photo a mere five microns – that’s five thousandths of an inch! Each of these three photos is created from hundreds of individual images which were stacked with specialized computer software that combines the in-focus portions of each of the individual images into a composite image that shows everything in focus front to back. It’s a magical photography technique that takes a lot of time and work, but what can be revealed makes it so much fun!”
In addition to documenting unique mushroom specimens, Pollack has a particular fondness for photographing slime molds.
Slime molds are diminutive organisms of “brainless intelligence” that used to be classified as fungi but are now considered to be part of the kingdom Protozoa, due to their distinctively non-fungi-like behavior of forming a structure known as a plasmodium, which moves around slowly ingesting decaying organic matter. When this plasmodium has eaten enough, or the air gets cold or dry, it changes from a slimy mass into a group of tiny, fruiting bodies that can release innumerable spores.
Pollack, who is a mathematician by training, and a self-professed “computer geek” and hiking enthusiast, became interested in photographing tiny fungi and slime molds a few years ago when she chanced upon and photographed her first slime mold in the forests of northern California. Intrigued, she did some research online about the slime mold life cycle, and has since been obsessed with hunting and snapping images of these different species, which are often overlooked by people because they are so small.
There are more than 900 species of slime molds around the world, and most are smaller than an eighth of an inch in height—though some species can amass into several square inches in size. Typically, they are found on the bark of living trees, but also on decaying matter like dead logs, leaves, and even sometimes in aquatic habitats.
As Pollack discovered, the life cycle of slime molds is indeed fascinating and consists of two stages. During the first “amoeboflagellate” stage, slime molds typically exist as a single-celled organism, and grow and sexually reproduce by binary fission. This then allows the slime mold to proceed to the second “plasmodium” stage.
In contrast to fungi, the plasmodium feeds on bacteria, fungal hyphae, and other microorganisms, ingesting them through a process called phagocytosis, where they engulf other cells and particles. In addition, slime molds are able to move away from light or undesired chemical contaminants, which fungi cannot do.
Pollack hopes to travel more in the future to visually chronicle more of these tiniest of organisms, and to reveal the “beauty and magic” of these incredible lifeforms. She says:
“The smaller they are, the more challenging they are to photograph, but I absolutely love the challenge. My goal is to show people the beauty of these tiny treasures that are all around the forest but barely visible unless you look very very closely.”