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Subject: UPDATE: The 'jelly' mystery
From: Hans Sluiman <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Hans Sluiman <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Wed, 3 Dec 2008 12:58:53 +0000

text/plain (81 lines)

Many thanks to those who have responded to my recent post about a story 
that the BBC Scotland radio programme "Out of Doors" has been running 
over the past few weeks about the sightings of a strange jelly substance 
in many parts of Scotland. The story even made it to the BBC Scotland's 
TV news ( Following a 
suggestion that the material could be an alga, the programme makers gave 
me a sample for further investigation, but I found no microscopical 
evidence that it had an algal, or indeed a botanical origin. Samples 
were then taken to Andy Taylor, a mycologist at the Macaulay Institute 
in Aberdeen for further analyses, including DNA sequencing, but to date 
no conclusive results are available yet.

Many different explanations have been offered, see for a selection 
of some or the most interesting or bizarre ones. Some of these are 
echoed by phycologists:

I wonder if the material could be mucopolysaccharides? Reports come from 
urban and rural areas, in the UK and North America. I think the source 
may vary (eg slugs, frogs, mammals) but the underlying chemical 
structure and therefore appearance may be similar (Phil Smith)

a slime mold (Tim Nelson)

Phaeocystis froth (Tim Wyatt)

Nostoc (Raymond Ritchie)

fruiting bodies of some fungi, or mucus balls left behind by big (up to 
~25 cm) red-orange slugs after copulation (Ian Jenkinson)

frog sperm (René van Wezel)

remains of herons' frog spawn meals (Peter Bond)

"starshot", literal translation from the Dutch "sterreschot", prey rests 
of frog-eating animals (foxes!) or birds of prey, often containing black 
frog eggs, OR: slime from cormorants - pieces of undigested fish skin, 
white, shapeless lumps (Erik-Jan Malta)

Further evidence that the gelly material could indeed be regurgitated 
amphibian spawn, a suggestion that also appeared on the BBC website 
mentioned above, was provided by Jenny Bryant and Barry Clarke, both at 
the Natural History Museum London:

"When I was curator of algae here at the BM I got this jelly sent to me
from time to time. I discovered a lot of information all pointing to
regurgitated amphibian oviduct/spawn after attack by a predator (heron
or otter etc.). The dates the samples arrived were around April/May
(usual spring spawning) and in November in mild years when frogs seem to
spawn somewhat unseasonably. The samples came from places as far apart
as Sussex, Shropshire and Lanarkshire. There is a paper on the subject 
by H. Baylis called 'Pwdre Ser', the Welsh name for the 'star jelly'. 
See 'The Essex Naturalist', volume 21 (1927) pages 271-275. It is also 
called 'star rot' or rather lewdly 'star shoot' and there is a lot of 
fanciful stuff on the internet about it." (Jenny Bryant)

Barry Clarke, Curator of Amphibians at the Natural History Museum agrees:

"I have had many accounts of this over the years, usually descriptive
without any illustrations. The explanation given by Jenny Bryant is very
good and I would agree and normally respond in the same vein. The jelly
I would interpret as mainly albumin secretions from the oviduct of
female frogs (or toads). There is rarely any tissue (either from the
frog or in the form of egg nuclei) accompanying the slime itself so DNA
testing would be of little use. This would account for the lack of
structure to the slime. In truth there is little to go on, so how it
came to be deposited where it was found is necessarily a topic ripe for
speculation. The alternative explanations--the deer with a cold are
interesting, amusing even but who really is an expert on the origin of
mucoid deposits in nature?" (Barry Clarke)

So, although we are still waiting for conclusive scientific evidence, it 
seems increasingly likely that the jelly substance has an amphibian 
origin. For further updates on the unfolding mystery, visit where a solution 
will be revealed sooner or later.

Hans Sluiman
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH3 5LR, Scotland

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