1. The Discovery
Chew chew chew.
Chew chew chew.
Chew chew chew.
Emma was happy.
The sun was shining and the gras was fresh and green.
Chew chew chew.
Taking a deep breath, she relaxed and nature called.
But what was that?
Emma turned around and looked at her… You know… Poo.
Puzzled, she stepped closer and stared at something that was kind of somehow maybe… Growing on it?
Did it fall on it?
Emma looked up.
Nope. Nothing but the blue sky.
What was it?
2. Of course!
From the other side of the meadow, Big Bertha, the oldest of the cows, saw Emma staring at her own droppings, her hind legs circulating around her fore legs.
She started to make her way over to Emma, as Emma was nudging her poo and sniffing her hoof.
Holy cow… Bertha thought.
“What are you up to?” She asked.
Startled, Emma quickly raised her head, her bell went “dong dong”.
“Uhm… Nothing much…” She tried to look casual. “You look like you’re not pleased with your number two here.”
“Well….” Emma was not sure if she should tell Bertha. But maybe there was something wrong with her! She had to know.
“I’m… Confused…Look at it. It has… mushrooms growing on it!”
Big Bertha smiled. “Of course it does!” she said.
Emma stared at Bertha, then at her poop, then back at Bertha.
“Uhm…? But… why?!”
“Emma,” Bertha began, “you are a cow.”
“No kidding.” Emma was beginning to get impatient.
“You eat soooo much grass every day!”
“Well,… I work out a lot, too” Emma mumbled not really convincingly.
“After you plug and chew, the grass enters your stomach.“
„I have four of those, right?”
“Actually, you only have one stomach, but it consists of four parts! Especially within the first part of your stomach, there are lots of microorganisms..”
“Very small living things, like bacteria and fungi. They are living in your gut and they help you to break down your food to get the nutrients and energy you need.” “I’m a fun guy!”, Emma chuckled.
Emma stretched her neck to look at her own gut. She seemed to reflect on what she had just heard.
“So you are telling me, there are tiny mushrooms in my gut? How did they get in there?” She was not convinced.
“Well, not mushrooms. Fungi!”
“Same thing, right?!”
“Oh no. Certain fungi have different forms. Life stages so to speak. They start as a spore, which is a very light and small thing that is carried away by the wind and settles on a blade of grass. Now you plug and eat the grass and the spore enters your gut. There it starts growing into long slender structures called hyphae. Many hyphae form a network called mycelium.”
“Ok, so the fungus breaks down the grass in my gut! But…why?Why doesn’t the fungus digest the grass outside of my body? I mean, you don’t buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, right?”
“Good question!” Bertha was impressed! Emma beamed with pride.
“The fungus likes to live in your stomach. It’s nice and warm and moist.”
“Ugh, moist!” Emma hated that word.
“Also, the way you chew cud for hours every day…“
“You know, you bring up what you had already swallowed and re-chew it before swallowing again.”
“No I don’t! That’s disgust-“
Gag. Chew chew chew, swallow.
Bertha looked at Emma expressionless.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Emma said while kicking away an imaginary stone.
“So anyway, it’s called a symbiosis! Two living things live very closely together and benefit from each other. The fungus has a nice warm place to grow and digest food, while you get to absorb important nutrients from the grass that the fungus made available to you!”
“A symbiosis! That sounds important!”
“It is! You actually need those little microorganisms in your gut! Anyway, parts of the fungus travel through your entire digestive tract and when you poop, you might poop out some of the fungus! The fungus notices this change…” -“You mean, leaving my gut and entering the world?” Emma grinned. “Exactly! This change causes the fungus to produce a mushroom, also called a fruiting body.”
“So the mushroom of the fungus is like the fruit of a plant?”
“In a way, yes!” It is a structure that produces spores underneath its cap! It will release these spores soon, they will get carried away by the wind, settle on the grass and guess what…”
“I’ll probably eat that grass!”
“Probably. Growing a mushroom on your poop and releasing spores is a way for the fungus to spread and find more food!”
7. Thank You, Mr. Fungus!
For a few minutes, Emma seemed to reflect on what she had just learned. Bertha had just started walking back to her spot in the shade when she heard Emma talk again. She turned around to find Emma bending down and looking directly at the mushroom on her poop.
“Mr Fungus,” she said, “nice finally meeting you in person! Thank you for all the hard work you’ve been doing in my gut! Much appreciated. Good luck releasing spores!”
And with a curtsy, she excused herself from the mushroom on her poo and happily walked away.