Wait, those spooky fingers are fungi?

Biology professor Tom Volk tells up why we don’t need to be scared of these ‘dead man’s fingers’.

Vocabulary: fungi, decay, asexual reproduction, spores, mature stage, mushrooms

NGSS: LS1.B-Growth and Development of Organisms, LS2.B-Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems, LS3.A-Inheritance of Traits, CCC2-Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation, and CCC6-Structure and Function.


Thiophene_Guy via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

These protrusions might look spooky, but they’re just the fruiting bodies of a wood decaying fungus. It’s easy to see why the fungus Xylaria polymorpha might spook someone. It’s often evocative of dingy human digits reaching out from unknown depths beneath the forest floor, earning it the nickname “dead man’s fingers.” It sometimes grows as a single stem, but more commonly, two to five branches appear clustered together. Each “finger” can grow up to eight centimeters tall, though they’re usually stubbier, says Tom Volk, a biology professor who teaches mycology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Read the full original article online or print it here.


  • Xylaria polymorpha is a fungus that grows near tree roots. Based on the article, what is the role of this mushroom in the ecosystem.
  • If you see Xylaria polymorpha in the wild, but do not see a tree, what can you assume about the undergrowth? Why?
  • Xylaria polymorpha produces asexual spores. Explain the genetic relationship between parent and offspring.
  • Describe the adaptation that helps ‘dead man’s fingers’ reproduce.

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If you want more fungi, check out this article on the lion’s mane mushroom.

This Spoonful was originally published October 2016.