If Fungi Aren’t Aliens, They’re Almost Certainly Communicating With Aliens

Imagine, for a moment, if aliens decided to visit Earth. How do you think it would go down? Here’s what I think would happen:

A black spacecraft appears on the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A door opens and in the steam, a series of purple, tentacled beings emerge. As they glide down a gangway toward the White House, the President himself strides out onto the lawn. He’s wearing a suit and tie, and flanked by heavily armed security personnel. His chiselled jaw is set and he betrays no fear. But as the two parties — the aliens and the “leader of the free world” — near one another, the purple visitors suddenly veer away. Then, just as suddenly, they form a circle and throw themselves upon their faces in the dewy grass. 

“We have received your transmission, supreme being,” a disembodied voice utters, a trace of awe in its metallic speech. “We have come to learn your secrets, and follow you into a new age of enlightenment and peace throughout the universe.”

The president stands on the lawn a short distance away, a little put out that the aliens appear to have completely ignored him. “Not the Dalai freakin’ Lama again,” he grumbles. “Who’s that in the centre?” he barks to the man beside him. 

Like lightning the officer lifts his rifle to his shoulder and peers down the scope. “There’s nothing there, sir,” he says, a hint of uncertainty edging into his professional calm. “Nothing… except a little clump of mushrooms.”

***

If aliens came to visit Earth, I’m not at all convinced that they’d be interested in us humans. I think they’d be far more interested to meet the fungi. 

I got thinking about them — the fungi, not the aliens — during a recent walk through a mountainous portion of the Olympic Peninsula, west of Seattle. Fungi — mushrooms, yeasts, molds — do not look or even act like they come from Earth at all. In forests full of rough bark, untidy forest floors, riotous leaves, tangled roots and the textured camouflage of bears, deer, birds and marmots, a fungi’s smooth, glistening skin and randy colours look exactly like you might imagine an alien. And the more you learn about them, the more otherworldly they seem.

One of these things is not like the others.

The mushrooms and mold you see are usually just the sex organs of a sprawling organism whoe body is a network of threads less than ten millionths of a metre wide. These threads worm throughout timber and the forest floor, playing an integral role in the decomposition of plant and animal matter — forests wouldn’t work without them. They are a fully separate kingdom of living organism, distinct from plants and animals. And despite their seemingly delicate bodies — and I say bodies, because genetically they are more similar to animals than to plants — they can be enormous. One recently discovered colony covers more than 900 hectares (around 3.7 square miles) — and is apparently somewhere between 2,000 and 9,000 years old. 

Now, as far as scientists know, fungi aren’t actually aliens. They are thought to have first diverged from the rest of us around a billion years ago at the start of the so-called Neoproterozoic Era, a chilly million years or so when glaciers reached the Equator and sea sponges were the most complex beings roaming the Earth. Nowadays, nobody actually knows how many types of fungi there are — biologists have documented around 120,000 species to date, though there are probably at least several million of them. 

And don’t get me started on fungus reproduction. In my brief reading on them, I have found fungi that create their own wind to disperse spores, fungi that shoot spores faster than a speeding bullet — and one that actually creates zombies. The ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungi of Thailand drop spores that latch onto and then infect the brains of ants, instructing them to wander out of the trees and onto the forest floor. From there, the ant climbs up a different tree to an exact height where the temperature and humidity are just right. There, the ant is forced to position itself facing north-northwest and then bite hard into a leaf. There, it is finally allowed to die. The fungus then grows to envelop the ant’s corpse, from where it can start the process anew. 

Oh, and when they die they turn jet black!

So next time I see a fungus poking its naughty parts out of the undergrowth or a piece of wood, I’m steering clear. Far be it from me to interfere with its work, whether that’s dropping spores or communicating with distant civilizations — which, I should point out, nobody has disproved. Those mushrooms may well be our masters one day, and I’m going to make sure I stay on their good side.

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