Every so often, the observant naturalist will stumble on a treasure worthy of a BBC documentary. I encountered one such treasure last month while on the New Mexico Mycological Society Annual Foray. I didn't find it myself – I was too busy ogling a slime mold that had somehow managed to engulf an unlucky gnat, wasp, or fly (probably because the fly landed to feed, but got stuck and instead became the food).

It's at the center top of the photo below. You can see its two little antennae and the outline of its wings if you look carefully. Sorry the photo is a little fuzzy, but it was a very small slime mold.


Nature red in tooth and protoplasm.

The poor little guy was still alive, as I realized when it frantically flapped its wings before I left.


But someone – forgive me, whoever you are, I can't remember your name; speak up in the comments and I will give you appropriate credit! – grabbed me before we got back in the truck to show me the amazing scene playing out on a series of artist's conks – woody shelf fungi that cling to the trunks of trees – on a stump. This is what we saw; you can hear her voice along with mine:


There is a definite yuck factor here (those larvae look like something that would crawl out of Kirk's ear in Star Trek II). But the wow factor exceeds it. Every single life phase of some sort of beetle was playing out in and around these conks simultaneously. And I mean every one. [Warning: Contents of video may not be suitable for beetle larvae]


I tried searching the wikigooglepediatron for the identity of these beetles, but I came up empty. If any entomologists reading know what this beetle is, please tell me! If you don't know, ask your entomologist friends. We saw colonies of the same species on other rotting wood bearing artist's conks elsewhere that day. When ready to pupate, the larvae would crawl up to the nearest overhang and suspend themselves like vampire bats.




The beetles were obviously feeding on the fungus – note the many reddish-brown gnaw marks.




The black spots on the blue beetles were also a treat – like something out of Dr. Seuss.



Surely, surely, someone out there knows the identity of this huge, gorgeous beetle, who seems to have a highly specialized relationship with what appears to to be the fungus Ganoderma aplanatum – the artist's conk – but may also be Fomitopsis pinicola, the red-belted polypore. If you do, please it share with us in the comments!


Artist's conk is famous for its industrial-grade spore manufacturing capabilities. According to Vera Evenson's book Mushrooms of Colorado and the Southern Rocky Mountains, a single conk may make as many as 20 million spores per minute during the five months of the spore-making season. As a result, the exterior of the conk, the ground beneath it, and any curious passersby who investigate may find themselves covered in a fine layer of rusty spore dust.


Artist's conk is also renowned for its snow white lower pore surface (the spores come out of these pores), which when scratched with a knife, scalpel, or other tool makes a permanent brown mark. This surface can be used as a blank canvas on which to create fine art, leave messages (see here or here), or even send post cards or packages. Now we see a new use: beetle chow, nursery, and love shack.


To add to the incredibleness of our find, the stump on which the beetles were located was just yards away from a terrible dirt road and this sign:



Here's a close-up:


What a cool thing to find in the middle of nowhere, right next to another amazing thing to find anywhere!


This road's full name is El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro – the Royal Road of the Interior Land. The Camino supposedly ran from Mexico City to San Juan Pueblo (now Ohkay Owingeh), New Mexico.


"CaminoRealAdentro" by U.S. National Park Service - http://www.nps.gov/elca. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

If this crappy dirt road was a part of the Camino, it was a portion that stretched even farther north than San Juan Pueblo. If so, it may have been the road that connected San Juan Pueblo with Taos.


For naturalists, there is simply no substitute for “boots on the ground” (or fins in the water!). So get out there, naturalist friends, and see what treasures you might stumble on this weekend.