Weird Animal Question of the Week: A Fungus That Looks Like Strawberries and Cream

This week’s theme of odd mushrooms was inspired by Eric Wright of Key West, Florida, who sent us a picture of an odd fungus growing in his yard that resembles a colorful Wiffle ball. (Yes, we know it’s not an animal, but even fungi need some love.)

We reached out to Debbie Viess, a biologist and co-founder of the Bay Area Mycological Society, who sussed it out as a type of mushroom called Clathrus crispus. Folks in other parts of the United States will find a similar species in Clathrus ruber.

Clathus ruber fungi
Clathrus ruber fungi. Photograph by Alamy

Both are members of the stinkhorn mushroom family, and stink they do—but their foul perfume has a benefit. Flies are attracted to the stench and get covered in spores, which the insects then take to new habitats, thus helping the mushroom reproduce, Viess said.

“It’s really no different than a flower producing scent for a bee”—it’s just the Addams Family version.

And as altogether ooky as they may look, these mushrooms aren’t poisonous, added Tim James, a mycologist at the University of Michigan. (See “Some 100 Species of Fungus Live on Our Feet.”)

C. crispus doesn’t have a corner on freakiness, though—there are 20,000 described mushroom species with plenty of odd characteristics, some of which we’ve described below.

Lobster Mushroom

“A fungus eating a fungus” is how the Bay Area Mycological Society’s Viess describes this fungus, which parasitizes another mushroom, Russula brevipes, using its body as “scaffolding to produce its own spores.” (See ” ‘Zombie Ant’ Fungus Under Attack—By Another Fungus.”)

A photo of a Lobster mushroom.
A lobster mushroom gets its vibrant color by parasitizing another mushroom. Photograph by Debbie Viess

In fairness, it does get something in return: a pretty orange color and “more flavor, more oomph,” Viess said. And yes, people eat them.

Bird’s Nest Fungus

As its name suggests, this fungus looks like a tiny bird’s nest—it consists of a little cup, only about 0.4 inch (one centimeter) across, that holds its “peridioles,” kind of like a packet of spores, which look like eggs in the nest.

It’s so tiny that a drop of water can dislodge the spores from the cup, causing them to disperse.

Bleeding Tooth Fungus

Viess and James referred to Hydnellum peckii by its sweeter name, strawberries and cream.

The strawberries and cream fungus. Photograph by Debbie Viess

This organism excretes a red fluid that looks like blood, the makeup of which James says is unknown. The mushroom contains a red pigment that gives it a pink complexion.

The word tooth in its name refers to the mushroom’s method of spore dispersal—it has teethlike spines that hang down from its underside and release spores.

Cannonball Mushroom

Who knew a mushroom could look like an organic missile silo?

This mushroom is known to shoot a mass of spores as far as 18 feet (5.4 meters). According to the University of Wisconsin’s website, that would be like a person six feet (1.8 meter) tall throwing a baseball 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) into the air.

If you have a fungus that you need to figure out, James recommends as an excellent field guide for your mushroom mysteries.

We leave you with a picture of Collybia cirrhata, which grows on the decayed remains of other mushrooms.

The Collybia cirrhata growing out of the dead black ones.
Collybia cirrhata mushrooms grow out of the dead black ones. Photograph by Debbie Viess

Got a question about the weird and wild animal world? Tweet me or leave me a note or photo in the comments below. You can also follow me on Facebook.


Meet the Author
Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at