Imagine you’re taking a stroll in the forest, enjoying the fresh air, exercise, and beautiful natural surroundings. All of a sudden, you come upon some bizarre life form that looks totally out of place and defies the imagination. It’s egg-like but looks like it was deposited by extraterrestrials. Is it dangerous? What is it?!
Hampshire, U.K.-based photographer and butterfly specialist Dan Hoare was walking in the New Forest National Park, one of England’s largest woodlands, when he spotted something that he couldn’t identify. It was buried in the grass in various spots and seemed to literally be “hatching” like some kind of alien’s eggs.
Alien eggs hatching in the new forest: the wonderfully weird Devil’s Fingers pic.twitter.com/wiFeYr22vO
— Dan Hoare (@DJHbutterflies) November 10, 2015
Hoare happens to be the director of U.K. conservation charity Save Butterflies, which enlists ordinary people to help out with a nationwide butterfly count every summer. He often goes walking and running in the woods and managed to photograph the strange “eggs” at various stages of their development.
One photo captures the moment when what appear to be red “tendrils” start to push apart the gauzy “shell.” A second picture shows the leathery covering being pushed back further as the “thing” inside is poised to emerge from its sac.
Finally, a third picture shows bright-red tendrils, which have black spots and bumpy “skin,” having spewed out from inside, splayed out like an alien octopus. Whatever it is, it’s definitely alive. The membrane of the tendrils almost look like the surface of a disgusting, raspy tongue.
Watch these “alien eggs” “hatch” in a time-lapse video by National Geographic:
But while they certainly look disturbing, these strange things didn’t make it to the United Kingdom from planet Mars or somewhere beyond; they were brought by flies from Australia and New Zealand and have since been spreading around the temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere.
The organism’s scientific name is Clathrus archeri, but its common name better reflects its appearance and traits. In the United Kingdom, it’s known as “devil’s fingers,” which makes a lot of sense given the fiery-red color and curving tendrils that seem to be reaching out to grab some unsuspecting soul.
In the United States, it’s more often known as “octopus stinkhorn,” an equally evocative name that captures both the tentacle-like appearance of the organism and its notoriously putrid smell.
But what is it? An animal? A plant? It’s a fungus. Many fungi participate in the process of decomposition and decay by consuming once-living matter—for example mushrooms often bloom on decomposing, fallen trees.
The weird-looking fungi photographed by Hoare also has a unique way of getting itself a free ride from place to place.
As mushroom specialist Dr. Andrew Miller explained to Inverse, the devil’s fingers is a saprophyte. By excreting mucus, these organisms let off a bad smell that attracts flies. “Flies come to the top of the stinkhorn and they eat that mucus,” Miller explains.
“They’re basically not only eating spores—they’re getting spores all over their wings and feet, then the fly flies off and disperses the spores for the fungus.”
So this fungus isn’t just diabolical in appearance; it’s also developed a very clever strategy for spreading.
As for Hoare, he was soon getting requests from major U.K. newspapers and TV outlets asking to use his wild photos. Some of the people on his Twitter feed just couldn’t believe that something so odd could be natural, wondering if he had used some special filters to make it look more dramatic.
Quoting the famous words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet about the limits of human knowledge, Hoare responded, “Amazing, but it’s very real. Clathrus archeri—Google it! ‘There are more things in heaven & earth, Horatio …’”