Microlife at Porthcurno – Young Curator Blog
Lurking in the leaf debris of Porthcurno Valley is the Conical Brittlestem. These fungi are characterised by their smooth, oak coloured and bell-shaped caps, as well as their proportionately much thinner, paler, white stems. The gills on this mushroom are light in colour and ‘adnexed’. This means they are only narrowly attached to the stalk. Although I only found a couple of these fungi in Porthcurno, they are common across Europe. Poking their heads out of the undergrowth between June and November, they start their life with a smooth and waxy, almost synthetic look on the cap, which then degrades to a rough texture and cream colour towards the end of their life.
Despite its appealing coffee colour, the Brittlestem mushroom is unfortunately classed as inedible due to its small size and unremarkable taste. So small and slight in fact, that it was a struggle to locate the fungi amongst the thick wood and leaf litter, the colour allows them to blend in almost perfectly with the surroundings.
In keeping with the micro theme, I found a similarly small and well camouflaged creature on my walk across the cliffs of Porthcurno. The fox moth caterpillar is one of the many furry caterpillars that enjoys roaming Cornwall’s coastline. The larvae, when fully grown, can reach up to 7cm long and have long, dark hairs on the sides with shorter, rusty coloured hairs on top. Younger caterpillars have even darker brown hairs with orange stripes down their length.
This caterpillar can often be found lying on top of rocks or vegetation in the sunlight. It may be tempting to pick it up to have a closer look, but that may not be the best idea! If tampered with, the caterpillar can shed some of its long hairs which then cause itchiness and irritation when in direct contact with skin.
The larvae feed themselves up with brambles and heather to prepare themselves for an energy intensive transformation. After metamorphosis, the beautiful female fox moths become largely nocturnal. Contrastingly, the males fly in late afternoon, looking for females who, in the low light, are only just making themselves visible. The fox moth earns its name by its distinct colouration: an orange tint (just like a fox) on the smaller males, with white stripes across the wings. The females largely share this colouration but are slightly larger with more of a grey hue on the wings.
Fortunately, this lovely critter is very common in Cornwall’s coastal and moorland areas. So, if you are out on a stroll, keep your eyes peeled and you might spot one!
Maeve Cushla, Young Curator, PK Porthcurno