As any professional ecologist will know, completing field surveys for protected species invariably means looking for faeces/prints/signs, rather than achieving actual sightings of the species sought. So, we often spend our time staring at the floor, which can be a little tedious!
During such a survey in the Welsh uplands last year I encountered some ‘star jelly’ (also called astromyxin or astral jelly). I remember as a child, while fishing with my Dad in the Severn valley finding the same, and no, its almost certainly not in any way a result of asteroids, the sun, or the cosmos!
According to folklore, this gelatinous substance is deposited on Earth during meteor showers. It was first reported as early as the 14th century when it was described by physician John of Gaddesden as “a certain mucilaginous substance lying upon the earth”, which could be used to treat abscesses. Some also believe it to be of paranormal origin, calling it ‘cellular organic matter’. This substance is even thought to have inspired the 1958 film The Blob!
It appears likely that there is no single explanation for this substance. Many reports are likely to relate to slime moulds, the name given to several types of unrelated eukaryotic organisms that can live freely as single cells, but can aggregate together to form multicellular reproductive structures. Observations may also relate to types of slime bacteria and some types of fungi resemble a gelatinous substance. Another potential option is Bryozoa, which exist in colonies of many individuals; in some species colonies are relatively solid whilst others are gelatinous, turning the whole colony into a wet, sticky gel-like blob.
The star jelly I encountered was found next to a pond, which was likely a good clue to its origin. Whilst there is much confusion and uncertainty regarding this substance, the Star Jelly I found no doubt originated from the glands in the oviducts of frogs and toads. In this case, a Buzzard had eaten the majority of the amphibian, but discarded the oviducts, the contents of which swelled to produce the jelly like material.