Home | Page 3 | Index Page

Gallery L

Fungus Among Us

Tracking The Alaskan Orange Goo Mystery

By James Donahue

When a strange orange goo-like substance washed ashore near the small fishing village of Kivalina, Alaska, in 2011 it had local villagers and a lot of biologists stumped.

When it arrived it covered most of the town’s harbor and was washing ashore. After a rain residents found it floating in rain buckets used to collect drinking water. When it was found on a roof, people thought it was falling from the sky.

Researchers were called to try to identify the substance, determine its origins, and learn if it was poisonous. The mystery soon gained lots of media attention. Time Magazine quoted Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosley as saying "it is not man made, it is not a petroleum substance."

The magazine said one local theory suggested that the goo was a growth caused by something going on at the Red Dog zinc mine located 46 miles upstream. But that could not be proved.

Because the substance appeared to fall from the sky, some locals even suggested that it was of alien origin, dropping from space.

After drying on the ground, the substance turned powdery.

After careful examination, biologists determined that the substance was both non-alien and nontoxic. Their preliminary report was that it appeared to be a mass of microscopic eggs from a crustacean, but beyond this, they were baffled.

Later the scientists changed their opinion, saying the goo may instead be a mass of spores from a type of fungus called rust. But they still could not identify its source or even the species of fungus they were dealing with. Thus the mystery remained unsolved.

Finally, working with the American and Canadian Forest Services, a mycologist, or person who specializes in fungi, got involved in the phenomenon.

A story in Scientific American, by Jennifer Frazer, has reported that the stuff has finally been identified as Spruce-Labrador Tea Needle Rust, a parasite on spruce trees and rhododendron, a flowering shrub found among the conifers.

The only remaining mystery is why the fungi suddenly appeared in such quantities, covering an entire harbor overnight. It is a phenomenon never observed before.