The mysterious organism looks like a mushroom but acts like an animal, and it's one of my favorite beings ever.
I don't use superlatives lightly, so when I say that Physarum polycephalum, the star of a new exhibit at the Paris Zoological Park, is the weirdest living thing, I mean it.
Just how weird is P. polycephalum? Really freaking weird ... and in the best way. Given the unfortunate common name of "slime mold," the single-cell organism has been stumping scientists ever since it was discovered. And I am a fangirl. As I wrote a few years ago in "The uncanny intelligence of slime mold":"It likes the shady, cool and moist environs of the forest floor, where it extends its oozy tendril-branches in the search for prey. It is neither plant, nor animal or fungus, but a gelatinous amoeba that is coaxing scientists into rethinking intelligent behavior. Although its name means 'many-headed slime,' it actually has no brain, which makes its skill set even more remarkable."
Got that? It has no brain. Yet this creature-thing can solve complicated mazes, anticipate events, remember where it has been, construct transport networks comparable to those designed by human engineers (see the video below) and even make irrational decisions – something long-considered the private domain of those of us with brains. And then it went and figured out the ol' two-armed bandit problem.
Now our sweet little slime mold is getting its own spot in the zoo! Hello, big time. Benoit Van Overstraeten reports for Reuters that the display will open to the public on Saturday, and that the slime mold has been dubbed "The Blob," after the 1958 horror sci-fi flick. Again, not the most flattering name for such a nifty organism, but I am thrilled to be seeing P. polycephalum getting its close-up. (Plus, "le blob" doesn't sound quite as bad.)
Van Overstraeten points out some of its other head-scratching talents: P. polycephalum has no mouth, no stomach, and no eyes, but it can find food and digest it. Slime mold has almost 720 sexes, can move without legs or wings and heals itself in two minutes if cut in half.
“The blob is a living being which belongs to one of nature’s mysteries,” said Bruno David, director of the Paris Museum of Natural History, to which the Zoological Park belongs.
“It surprises us because it has no brain but is able to learn ... and if you merge two blobs, the one that has learned will transmit its knowledge to the other,” David added.
“We know for sure it is not a plant but we don’t really if it’s an animal or a fungus,” said David.
Or maybe something altogether different?
What we do know is that it doesn't fit into the usual pockets in which we classify living things – and it elegantly defies our thinking about thinking. To some it may be just a strange yellow fungus-y organism that lives amongst tree litter, but I find P. polycephalum to be rather humbling. Its intelligence and mysteries shine a light on how much of the world we really don't understand, all the while it goes along doing its thing ... mapping routes across the forest floor, anticipating events, and solving problems along the way.
More about the lovely le blob in the video below.