I came across this mesmerizing species at 6am this morning. We were wandering the crowded Gipsy fair–Urchnoid and I–the sky at dawn grey and stormy, the air damp and full of smoke. We were making close examinations of some exquisite hookah components when an elderly woman beckoned us from across the pile of mu‘assel. Neither of us was wearing our formal attire, so she probably had figured us as scholars by the glasses. She then presented us with a handful of dehydrated brown vegetal organisms, reminiscent of the dried mushrooms we had once seen in the oriental grocer’s. A rare collection from the seasonal marsh, she declared, addressing them as “cactus fungi”.

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Although I saw no resemblance between these pathetic things and cacti, we followed her instruction and placed a couple of the organisms into a bowl of water. For about ten seconds they were just floating there, so I made one of the biggest mistakes by rubbing my eyes before hearing Urchnoid inhaling, audibly. I snapped back to the container and saw the most incredible scene in the late five years. Both the stems were fully rehydrated, though still brown, and from the top emerged tens of tentacles, light-coloured and pulpy, swinging jubilantly in the liquid like sea anemones. The base parts had also expanded, forming root-plate-like structures resembling those of Ficus elasfica, except for the overly-reduced dimensions.

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The two individuals carried no morphological difference; however, when the woman fished them out of water to lie on a piece of soggy flannel, the tentacles of one started to fold inward, while those of the other bifurcated at the extremity. Within one minute they became two gametophytes, before the tentacle-folded one suddenly burst to release a small smoke of male gametes into the air. The tentacle-bifurcate one deftly caught the reproductive cells with the tiny tips. As the male gametophyte withered into dust, the female shrank towards the centre, finally revealing a dark-brown husk of an oval shape. We cut open the husk and found six cashew-shaped zygotes, one third of an inch in size, grey with black creases.

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I picked up one of the zygotes for a closer observation, while it slipped through my fingers onto the ground. After I retreated the broken grain from mud, the woman had disappeared with the rest of the stuffs. We were left in the middle of the fair, pale sunshine sieved through the clouds, and the bearded man at the hookah stall boasting his handcrafted mouthpiece which vividly resembled a hyena’s genital. We left the fair with regret and fell asleep in the carriage.

Several questions remain about this mysterious species: what is the dehydration-rehydration mechanism? How do the gametophytes recognize one another and settle on opposite genders? What is the identity of the gametes? And most important of all, what is its status in the evolution? Despite the misleading common name, it is by no means a fungus. Habitat might explain the necessity of dehydration, but what about the way of reproduction? It’s both bemusing and exciting, to find that there’s still much to answer on this planet, and that the prospect of human’s discovery is ever grander.

p.s. Urchy, you may want to save your time and energy from searching the Bod. Not a single record of this little demon, I assure you. Even so, I’d suggest naming it Superstes paludosus S., and may this name live longer than we.

 

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