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Wappapello Bioblitz Turns Up Plant-Animal Hybrid

Mar 28, 2012

MASHUP, Mo. —A recent “bioblitz” at Lake Wappapello turned up hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants—and something altogether different.

A bioblitz brings together professional and amateur naturalists to conduct one- or two-day inventories of as many life forms as possible in a selected area. The result is a snapshot of an area’s biological diversity at a moment in time. Bioblitzes conducted in the same area over time reveal changes in plant and animal abundance and diversity. Occasionally they result in surprising discoveries.

Lake Wappapello Bioblitz organizer Dee Lister is an associate professor of taxonomy at Southern Ozarks University. She said the Lake Wappapello area was chosen because it lies on an ecotone—a transition area between two or more areas with different physical characteristics and biological communities.

Lister said southeastern Missouri is a fascinating place from an ecological perspective.

“It has a lot in common with the Ozarks, which is an amazingly diverse biome in its own right,” said Lister. “But the southeastern edge of the bioblitz area is within spitting distance of the swamps and sand prairies of the Mississippi embayment. And at its northern end it’s very close to the incredibly ancient igneous rock outcrops of the St. Francois Mountains. The area has species from each of those biomes. In that kind of ecological melting pot, we knew we would find some really interesting stuff.”

The Wappapello Bioblitz March 23 and 24 recorded 911 plant and animal species. Included in that total were:

  • 47 mammals
  • 98 birds
  • 48 reptiles
  • 31 amphibians
  • 165 fishes
  • 250 invertebrate animals, such as insects, spiders, mollusks and protozoans
  • 272 plants, including fungi

NOT included in this list was an extremely odd-looking organism discovered by Bryan Morelli, a herpetologist with the Arkansas Biological Survey. He and his wife, Zoe, were looking for salamander larvae in about four feet of water near the northern end of Lake Wappapello when he spied something that looked familiar in a very unfamiliar place.

“A big ash tree had fallen into the lake,” said Morelli. “The top was completely underwater, and there, growing out of a slender branch, was a Morchella esculenta.”

Or at least that is what he initially thought it wa—an edible mushroom commonly found in the spring throughout the Midwest. But when he reached into the water and grasped it, the object felt distinctly jellylike.

“I kind of jerked my hand back,” said Morelli. “I didn’t know what to think at that point. So I broke off the branch it was on and put it in a collecting jar.”

Back on land, Morelli got his first clear look at the specimen, but it only deepened his confusion. The object was made of semi-solid, gelatinous material. Its surface was marked with indistinct rings over a honeycomb pattern of deep wrinkles. His impression of the thing changed. Now he thought it looked more like a colony of bryozoans, tiny animals that live in water and secrete a gelatin support structure. However, the shape and the honeycomb construction were just as unmistakably like a morel mushroom.

“It’s really strange,” said Lister. “We can’t be sure, but as near as we can tell, this is a hybrid between a morel and a bryozoan.”

What makes this doubly strange is the fact that morels are fungi that grow on land, while bryozoans are animals that live in water. Lister can’t explain how this could happen.

“The evidence seems clear,” said Lister, “but we can’t be sure until we sequence the DNA and compare it to genetic material from morels and bryozoans.”

The mysterious organism has been sent to a lab for DNA analysis. Meanwhile, scientists are left to speculate about how the genetic material of a fungus could have gotten into an animal or vice versa. Morelli has a theory.

“Everybody knows that morels grow around ash trees,” he said. “The mycelium, (the underground part of the fungus) taps into tree roots to get nutrients. Maybe some morel DNA got into the tree roots and was transported to the branches, where it combined with the bryozoan’s DNA. It sounds far-fetched, but I’m still waiting for a better explanation.”

Morelli went back to the fallen ash tree after the bioblitz and gathered what he called “a mess” of the strange growths, which he has nicknamed “MoZoans.” When he got home, curiosity got the best of him. He sliced a few of the strange growths and sautéed them in butter.

“They tasted like morels,” said Morelli, “but something else too. They tasted a little fishy. The best thing was, I didn’t have to soak them in water to get rid of bugs. They were pre-washed!”

Morelli refuses to disclose the location of the MoZoan patch, but says he isn’t simply trying to keep the unique food item to himself. In fact, he says he doesn’t intend to eat any more of the hybrids, based partly on his wife’s advice.

“He hasn’t been himself since eating that first mess,” said Zoe. “He used to be a very active guy. Now he just sits around, and that healthy glow is gone from his cheeks. And he has taken to sitting in the back yard with his toes stuck in the soil. I don’t know what that’s about.”

Fisheries biologists are looking into another strange phenomenon associated with the “MoZoan” discovery. Electrofishing surveys show that the invasive silver carp, which invaded Lake Wappapello a few years ago, have disappeared from the cove where the MoZoans were found. They don’t know if this is a coincidence, if MoZoans repel exotic carp, or if the carp are eating the MoZoans and dying.

Lister is skeptical. “It’s a very interesting development,” she said, “but it seems a little fishy to me. I wonder if it isn’t just April Foolishness.”

Happy April Fool’s Day !


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