Fungi, despite their widespread misunderstanding and underappreciation, play a crucial role in the planet’s ecosystems. While they may appear strange and otherworldly to us at times, they possess unmatched expertise in breaking down organic matter. Some experts even suggest that their latent superpowers could potentially save the world.
In an effort to raise awareness and appreciation for these tiny fungi and enigmatic slime molds, which also go by various names like Myxogastria and Myxomycetes, American photographer Alison Pollack employs specialized techniques to capture the enchanting beauty of these minuscule organisms.
Alison Pollack, the photographer, explains, “Although they may appear large in the photos, these fungi are actually incredibly small, barely visible to the naked eye, each measuring less than one millimeter in height. To capture these tiny fungi with high magnification, I utilized a 10x microscope lens adapted to my camera and employed a technique known as focus stacking. The camera is mounted on a meticulously adjusted rail, and it moves a mere five microns between each photo, which is equivalent to five thousandths of an inch! Each of these three photos is composed of hundreds of individual images stacked using specialized computer software, creating a composite image that presents every detail in focus from front to back. This magical photography technique demands a significant amount of time and effort, but the revelations it uncovers make it incredibly rewarding.”
In addition to documenting unique mushroom specimens, Pollack has a particular fondness for capturing images of slime molds.
Slime molds are diminutive organisms with “brainless intelligence” that were previously categorized as fungi but are now classified as part of the Protozoa kingdom. This change is due to their distinct non-fungal behavior, as they form structures called plasmodia, which slowly move and consume decaying organic matter. When the plasmodium has consumed enough or conditions become cold or dry, it transforms from a slimy mass into a cluster of tiny fruiting bodies that release numerous spores.
Pollack, a mathematician by training and a self-proclaimed “computer geek” and hiking enthusiast, developed an interest in photographing tiny fungi and slime molds a few years ago when she stumbled upon and photographed her first slime mold in the forests of northern California. Intrigued, she conducted online research on the slime mold life cycle and has since been captivated by the pursuit of these diverse species, often overlooked due to their small size.
There are over 900 species of slime molds worldwide, with most measuring less than an eighth of an inch in height, although some species can aggregate into several square inches in size. They are typically found on the bark of living trees and on decaying matter like dead logs, leaves, and sometimes in aquatic environments.
As Pollack discovered, the life cycle of slime molds is truly fascinating, consisting of two stages. In the initial “amoeboflagellate” stage, slime molds exist as single-celled organisms, growing and reproducing through binary fission. This stage then leads to the second “plasmodium” stage.
Unlike fungi, the plasmodium feeds on bacteria, fungal hyphae, and other microorganisms by engulfing them through a process known as phagocytosis. Furthermore, slime molds can move away from light or unwanted chemical contaminants, a capability fungi lack.
Pollack aspires to travel more extensively in the future to visually document these tiny organisms and unveil the “beauty and magic” of these remarkable life forms. She expresses her goal as follows: “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.