Lobster Mushroom

Family: 
Hypocreaceae
Description: 

Overall look is that of a capped mushroom (often becoming contorted with age) covered with a finely bumpy, vivid orange to orange-red crust of mold; gills are often entirely obscured. July–October. An entire host mushroom (often a nonedible white species of Lactarius or Russula) is covered with a bright orange to orange-red, moldlike parasitic fungus. The surface of the parasite has fine bumps and is somewhat hardened. The gills of the host mushroom can be entirely obscured by the parasite. When cut through, lobster mushrooms are pure white inside, which indicates the color of the host mushroom. Spore print is clear. Spores magnified are spindle-shaped, and strongly warted.

The lobster mushroom is very unusual. There are no lookalikes in Missouri.

Size: 
Variable, depending on size of the host mushroom.
Habitat and conservation: 
Found singly or in groups of up to many, in mixed woods. When not completely up, the "lobster" can often be found by looking for humps on the forest floor.
Distribution in Missouri: 
Statewide.
Status: 
A choice edible mushroom that is delicious and meaty. The bright orange-red parasitic fungus actually transforms an ordinary nonedible white mushroom (possibly a Russula brevipes or Lactarius piperatus) into an excellent edible mushroom, by changing its color, shape, and flavor.
Life cycle: 
Humans and other animals aren't the only organisms that suffer from parasitism. In this case, a fungus parasitizes another fungus, feeding off its tissues and transforming the host in the process. (It's hard to say if it "kills" the host or not!) The surface of the parasite has fine bumps, each of which is a flasklike vessel in which the spores are produced. The spores, should they land on the tissues of a suitable host mushroom, begin the process again.
Human connections: 
Named for the color of a cooked lobster, it's a mushroom growing on a mushroom! In addition to this being a delicious edible mushroom, it is a simply fascinating part of the natural world. Amazement is a wonderful thing in itself.
Ecosystem connections: 
A long time ago, fungi were considered plants, which seemed obvious since they don't move and often grow "rooted" in soil. Today they constitute their own separate kingdom. Unlike plants, they cannot photosynthesize. Like animals, they must "digest" food from elsewhere.