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15 of the World’s Funkiest Fungi

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When it comes to the natural world, fungi are (truly) in a kingdom all their own. They help humans brew tasty beverages like beer, they recycle nutrients from dead plants and animals, and they provide nutrients for trees. Of course there are others that destroy food crops and kill any humans who accidentally ingest them. You never know what you’re going to get with fungus. In celebration of their weird and wonderful world, here are 15 fungi that will blow your mind (some of them in a literal sense).

1. SHOESTRING FUNGUS (ARMILLARIA OSTOYAE)

Jerzy Opioła via Wikimedia Commons

Hidden underground in Malheur National Forest, Oregon lives a creature so large it makes the blue whale look small. Meet the Humongous Fungus, the world’s biggest living organism. This four-square-mile patch is mostly hidden from view (a few odd mushrooms pop up here and there), but its impact is, well, humungous: this type of fungus causes root disease and kills conifers across North America.

2. BLACK WITCHES' BUTTER (EXIDIA GLANDULOSA)

This blister-like fungus grows on decaying logs and fallen branches, looking flat and rougher in dry conditions and swollen after rain. Despite its unappetizing appearance, the fungus is edible—though you might want to add some seasoning.

3. BLEEDING TOOTH FUNGUS (HYDNELLUM PECKII)

One of the more disgusting-looking fungi of the world might cause concern for hikers who stumble across it. But the red liquid oozing out of it isn’t blood—it emerges due to guttation. This is a process that causes rapidly growing or metabolizing plants to excrete excess fluids. For the bleeding tooth fungus, the fluid happens to be bright red.

4. GLOW IN THE DARK MUSHROOMS (MYCENA CHLOROPHOS)

There are plenty of fungi that exhibit bioluminescence, but this particular species from Southeast Asia is the oldest known example. What makes it give off that eerie green glow? In 2015 scientists discovered a compound called hispidin, an antioxidant that undergoes a chemical reaction to create a glowing light.

5. CHICKEN OF THE WOODS (LAETIPORUS SULPHUREUS)

Do you prefer your poultry in the form of nuggets, drumsticks—or maybe as fungus? This edible mushroom tastes like—you guessed it—chicken. It’s bright yellow and has no gills (the fine, black material you may have noticed on the underside of Portobello mushrooms). But watch out for a variation of this mushroom growing on conifers, since they’re a different species and might cause poisoning. 

6. DUNG CANNON (PILOBOLUS CRYSTALLINUS)

Considering fungi are immobile, the superlative “fastest creature on Earth” might seem impossible. But when it comes to acceleration, the Dung Cannon is indeed the fastest organism: The fungus launches its crystalline spores at an acceleration rate of 1.7 million m/s2—faster than guns and even rocket ships. 

7. RED YEAST RICE (MONASCUS PURPUREUS)

Moldy rice might not sound like an ideal element of a meal, but the mold Monascus purpureus actually makes a popular fermented food with possible medical uses. In addition to being eaten, red yeast rice is also sold as a supplement to decrease cholesterol

8. WAVY-CAPPED MAGIC MUSHROOMS (PSILOCYBE CYANESCENS)

These mushrooms might look innocuous, but they pack a potent dose of psilocybin, a chemical that causes distorted perception, hallucinations, and intensified emotions. In 2001, scientists found 100,000 of the mushrooms growing along a racetrack in England, but more recently these fungi have made the news for their potential in treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and PTSD. 

9. GEM-STUDDED PUFFBALL (LYCOPERDON PERLATUM)

Though this member of the puffball family resembles an anemone shell, it’s actually covered in detachable spiny warts. In urban areas it can be found near trampled ground and around curbs. It is edible, but foragers should be particularly careful, since lookalike species include the Pigskin Poison Puffball and the deadly Destroying Angel.

10. WHITE-ROT FUNGUS (PHANEROCHAETE CHRYSOSPORIUM)

Given its name, you might think this is a harmful fungus to be avoided. But white-rot fungus (here on the left) is actually quite valuable for its use in bioremediation—cleaning land that’s been contaminated by heavy metals and chemicals. White-rot fungi can deteriorate pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and even crude oil.

11. DEVIL'S FINGERS (CLATHRUS ARCHERI)

This woodland fungus is a native of Australia and New Zealand that has since spread throughout the world. It grows around leaf litter, decaying stumps, and woodchips. Its “fingers” are smelly and meant to attract flies, which then carry its spores away with them. 

12. ALMOND MUSHROOM (AGARICUS SUBRUFESCENS)

These mushrooms were cultivated in the 19th century and used to be popular in North America, although they fell out of favor until more recently when they’ve been cultivated in Brazil and Japan. The almond mushroom is also thought to combat cancer by stimulating the immune system, though there haven’t been enough studies yet to prove its efficacy. 

13. SLIME MOLD (STEMONITIS AXIFERA)

You’d think a slime mold would look, well, slimy, but in this case it’s actually more like hair. The furry brown strands are sporangia growing on top of thin, black stalks. For years, slime molds were thought to be fungi, but they’re actually multicellular amoebas whose spore structures mimic those of fungi. 

14. REISHI MUSHROOMS (GANODERMA LUCIDUM

Chinese civilizations have cultivated reishi mushrooms for medicinal purposes for more than 2000 years. They treat everything from bacterial infections to cancer (though studies are ongoing to see just how effective the mushrooms actually are). But more recently, a mycologist has found an alternative use for them—as building material. Their root-like mycelium is strong, waterproof, and fire-resistant, discovered Philip Ross. The mycelium bricks were even used to build towers at MoMA PS1 in New York.

15. RED CORAL FUNGUS (RAMARIA ARAIOSPORA)

Coral fungi are aptly named for their resemblance to coral, and they grow all over the world. Red Coral Fungus is a beautiful pinkish color, which turns green when sprinkled with iron salts. It’s also eaten and sold in markets in Mexico and Guatemala.

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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A Baby's Cries Might Hint at What the Child Will Sound Like as an Adult
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Babies may be incapable of talking, but at just a few months old, they've already developed many of the characteristics that will one day make their speaking voice distinct. That's the takeaway from a new study, reported by The New York Times, in which a team of bioacoustic researchers found that you can tell what infants will sound like at age 5 by analyzing their cries.

For their study, published in the journal Biology Letters [PDF], the researchers recorded the voices of 15 French children 4 to 5 years old. They then compared the clips to the children's "mild discomfort cries" recorded when they were 2 to 5 months old. The results showed that a baby's voice can be used to predict 41 percent of the variances they will have in their vocal pitch at age 5.

Other studies have suggested that what our voices sound like when we're young is a strong indicator of what they will sound like later on—even after puberty changes our vocal cords. A boy's voice pitch at age 7 can predict up to 64 percent of the distinguishing features his voice will have as an adult.

The study authors write that many of these variances may develop before childhood, and potentially in utero: "These observations suggest that inter-individual differences in [voice pitch] arise early in life and are largely unaffected by puberty, and raise the possibility that [pitch] may even be determined before birth."

The most important markers that determine pitch are the length, size, and tension of our vocal folds. But those aren't the only determinants: Environmental factors like smoking, pollution, and climate can affect how our voices sound as well, though these changes are usually temporary.

[h/t The New York Times]

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