Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Splendor of a Saprotrophic Stinkhorn

While in field last week, I encountered a species of fungus with a rather unique set of morphological and ecological characteristics. The aptly named ‘stinkhorn’ fungus (Clathrus columnatus) belongs to the Phallaceae Family of fungi and produces a distinctive gelatinous spore mass that gives off a lovely perfume. Well, lovely to insects anyway, to me it reeked of rotting meat and dung. The stinkhorn’s ‘aroma’ serves as an attractant for flies and other insects vital to the fungus’s lifecycle. In the process of munching on the glebra (spore mass) insects gather the fungus’s reproductive spores on their bodies and in their digestive tracts, these spores are then transported and dispersed once the insects have gotten their fill and part ways. Although my nose took offense to the odoriferous bouquet produced by the stinkhorn’s gleba, the fungus’s appearance was really pretty cool.

The orange and spongy columnar structure of Clathrus columnatus emerges from an "egg" on the ground and grows upward forming an arch-like receptaculum at the top. The underside of the ‘arch’ forms from the joining of the stinkhorn’s multiple columns and anchors the foul-smelling glebra.

The "Egg"

View from above - Intersection of Columns

Fungi play major roles in the nutrient cycling of terrestrial ecosystems. Clathrus columnatus itself is a saprotroph that decomposes organics, and in process of doing so frees-up important resources for it and the other organisms sharing its ecosystem.

Energetically, saprotrophic fungi utilize extra-cellular digestion to acquire nutrients from dead and decaying organic material. Extra-cellular digestion is the process in which an organism, such as a fungus, releases tissue degrading enzymes into its surrounding environment. The enzymes break down nearby organics into their more easily metabolized constituents, such as simple sugars and fatty acids. In the case of the wood specialist Clathrus columnatus, its enzymes catalyze cellulose into simple sugars which are in turn engulfed by the fungus’s cells (endocytosis). In addition to freeing simple disaccharides from wood, the enzymes produced by C. columnatus also liberate valuable carbons from the wood’s lignin stores. The ability of lignin to store atmospheric carbon makes it an important component of the Carbon Cycle, and antagonistically, the capacity of the stinkhorn’s lignin-modifying enzymes to oxidize and release these sequestered carbons represents a significant ecological contribution.

As a consequence of Clathrus columnatus’s affinity for dead wood, the fungus is often associated with anthropogenically disturbed habitats. It can often be found growing in and around gardens and residences where areas of cultivation have resulted in accumulations of mulch, woodchips or other cellulose laden landscaping materials. Interestingly, the photos displayed here were taken adjacent to a brownfield that previously held a paper mill. As a part of the mill’s past wood-processing, the otherwise nutrient poor sandy soils include high quantities of wood chips - a virtual stinkhorn buffet.

Tuno, N. (1998). Spore dispersal of Dictyophora fungi (Phallaceae) by flies Ecological Research, 13 (1), 7-15 DOI: 10.1046/j.1440-1703.1998.00241.x


  1. I came across a few of these while walking a nature trail. I had no idea what it was, so I posted it to my blog. A friend of mine went searching, and found your blog. So, thank you for answering my question! :)

  2. We are in NC and we just found these in our flower bed yesterday and took a couple of pictures today. I hunted around the web for quite awhile before I found JUST the right picture! I figured out they were stinkhorns pretty quickly, but your photo and description were the most accurate!
    Thanks for clearing up the mystery for me!!

  3. we just made a stinkhorn omelet and its delicious!!! do you think its safe to eat?

  4. im not feeling good from that mouth is dry and i have explosive diahrea :/