Cornell University

The Dancing Nematode and the Helicospore

When you study tiny things, that first glance through the microscope is like opening an unexpected birthday present. What you want is to sit down at the microscope, look at the slide, and go “WOW!!!!” As hinted in my ruminations on Linder’s monograph, and in Kathie’s BioBlitz post, the helicosporous hyphomycetes have been responsible for their share of wows. I always make a point of showing them to visitors, especially nonmycologists. In fact, Mrs. FAM was once exposed to helicospores in my attempt to seduce her into my esoteric world.

Well, one day I was looking at a really wet bark specimen and I saw this:

Quicktime 5+ movie

Dead nematode surrounded by helicosporesWhat in heaven’s name was going on? What is all that wiggling? Well, when you spend a lot of time looking at rotting stuff, you get used to the aerial dance of nematodes, waving their glassy noses around in the air like cobras charmed by some microscopic swami. But these nematodes (and there were lots of them struggling like this), looked like they had been dipped in sugar. When I picked one up and put it on a slide, this is what I saw:

All well-raised mycologists know about fungi with a special talent for grabbing and consuming nematodes. A few species make spectacular constricting rings to grab these wandering nitrogen-rich delights. The delicious oyster mushroom Pleurotus is only one of the basidiomycetes that makes little microscopic temptations referred to by George Barron as “lethal lollipops.” Science fiction fans will recall the famous Piers Anthony novel Omnivore, which features a planet where all organisms in all ecological niches evolved from fungi. In one dramatic scene, the heroes are menaced by gigantic nematodes and then rescued by the constricting ring traps of a heroic Arthrobotrys.Piers Anthony's novel 'Omnivore'

But helicosporous fungi are not known to trap or consume nematodes. There was no obvious hyphal growth in my dead nematodes, and sure, it is possible that there were other nematode trapping fungi around (you can see some smaller, non-helicoid spores in the photo).

But this is a unique observation, shared with you for free in an attempt to stimulate some original research on your part. Was this a one-off thing or do these helicosporous hyphomycetes have a habit of doing this? How are they killing the nematodes? Do they make toxins? Here’s another thing… most nematode killing pesticides have been banned. Could these helicosporous fellows be making something with commercial potential? There could be millions of dollars in here for you. All I ask is that you remember the beautiful helicospores each time you cash your royalty cheque.


There is another box here on my desk from Finland. Again, I am afraid.


Thanks to Kent Loeffler for translating the video into a web-friendly format.

1 Comment


One Response to “ The Dancing Nematode and the Helicospore ”


Most people don't pay much attention to fungi, which include things like mushrooms, molds, yeasts, and mildews. Here at Cornell we think they're pretty fascinating. In fact, even the most disgusting foot diseases and moldy strawberries are dear to our hearts. We'd like to talk to you about fungi, so that like us, you too can tell gross stories at the dinner table. Afterwards, maybe you'll notice some things you would have overlooked before, and we think this could be good for the planet.

Kathie T. Hodge, Editor

Beneath Notice, our book of borescopic mycology.


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