Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rocket Fuel Powered Snails?

Zonitoides nitidus on Gyromitra korfii
Long time, no post ;)

In the year or so since I last posted my attention has fluttered from snails, to caterpillars, and, now, to mushrooms. I still look at snails when I come across them and find snails really fascinating, but, boy, they are just pretty damn inaccessible to a non-scientist. Not a lot of info on top of being plain hard to identify equals too frustrating to lose sleep over.

I literally just decided over the winter to learn about mushrooms. I've been on a self-sustainability kick and have decided to see how much of my families food I can provide without supermarkets by growing, foraging, and hunting/fishing. So I spent a lot of the winter pouring through mushroom identification books to get my bearings on that front, hoping to slowly add species of mushrooms to my foraging list.

But, now that mushrooms are starting to bloom, the two interests (snails and mushrooms) have aligned.

As the foraging year begins, the genus of mushrooms to seek is Morchella: the Morels. They are the number one spring target for edible mushrooms. Of course, they have their poisonous counterparts known as the false Morels (and, in actuality, Morels are poisonous unless cooked). While out looking for Morels I came across a Gyromitra species, one of these false Morels.

I picked it to identify and, lo and behold, a Euconulus cf. fulvus was on it. I removed the snail gently (Euconulus seem to be especially crushable) and put the mushroom in a paper bag to bring home and identify. Upon arriving home, I found a hitchhiker, a Zonitoides nitidus. Now, I can't confirm the snails were feeding on the mushroom since I didn't look for feeding tracks, but I can pretty much assume these snails are there for supper. My little hithchiker happily stayed crawling all of the mushroom while I made a spore print.

Macroscopically I had a pretty good idea of what species it was based on a couple keys to the Gyromitra. But I decided I wanted to confirm identity microscopically by checking out the spores. You'll see below the spores which have prominent knobs (apiculi?) and a central oil spot with some smaller oil spots.

The circled spore shows most of the characteristics: apiculi, central oil spot, and smaller oil spots.

By way of microscopy, I confirmed this mushroom as Gyromitra korfii, which may or may not be synonymous with Gyromitra fastigiata. It also may be synonymous with Gyromitra gigas, but I'm not exactly sure. Gyromitra gigas apparently is an edible mushroom. It seems only to be west of the Rockies and favors conifers. However, it still has to be cooked, and some accounts seem to want you to prepare it by parboiling to remove the toxins. G. korfii is grouped with G. gigas and may be conspecific, although all the newer books I own (and Michael Kuo's excellent site: have it separated. Further, G. gigas may be a lump of G. korfii and G. montana, distinguished mostly by minute differences of spores and region (G. korfii in east and G. montana in west).

But here's the cool part: the toxins of Gyromitra. Gyromitra produce monomethylhydrazine, an ingredient in rocket fuel. According to good ole Wikipedia, this toxin is produced in Gyromitra by the hydrolysis of gyromitrin. You can read about gyromitrin and its occurrence in Gyromitra here. Long story short, monomethylhydrazine is a known carcinogen and can be fatally toxic to you and me. Some species contain more than others. Gyromitra escuelenta is known to be deadly. Of course, that doesn't stop some people and apparently it's prepared and sold in Finland regularly (the toxins being removed by parboiling).

This species, G. korfii, was a little harder to nail down as to it's full toxicity. It may be, but then again, maybe it's not. I seems to be of an unknown provenance in the poisonous department. But, it seems like all the Gyromitra are rocking some rocket fuel. Needless to say, this mushroom won't find itself on my plate any time soon.

So back to our little snails. They are ostensibly feeding on this early species of poisonous (by way of rocket fuel) mushroom. Even if this species of Gyromitra only has a little, the snails mass is so much less than a human, they're ostensibly getting more relative exposure. So, does that mean they have immunity to what we know to be carcinogenic and/or deadly toxin? The mushroom's only coming up in the spring, right when the snails are becoming active again, is there any ill effect from this first meal of poison? They'd only be able to feed for a few months at most, until the mushroom rots away. Can snails get cancer? Obviously, I don't know. But it's kind of neat to think that these snails might just be rocket fuel powered.

This movie, Turbo, is coming out in July 2013 about a turbo charged snail. We saw a preview of it when the family went to see The Croods. Looks fun and is relatable to this blog post ;)