Alaskan mystery substance is fungal spores, not eggs, NOAA says
This image, taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows one of the spores that comprised the substance found in Kivalina.
August 18th, 2011
09:01 PM ET

Alaskan mystery substance is fungal spores, not eggs, NOAA says

A mysterious orange substance found on the shores of an Alaskan village this month is a mass of fungal spores, not microscopic eggs as an initial analysis indicated, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.

The spores are consistent with those that come from a fungus that causes rust, a plant-only disease that causes a rust-like appearance on leaves and stems, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service said.

This orange substance mystified residents of Kivalina, Alaska, when it appeared on their shore August 3.

A NOAA lab in Juneau, Alaska, said last week that the substance appeared to be a mass of microscopic eggs, possibly those of a small crustacean. But samples were then taken to a NOAA lab with more advanced equipment - including a scanning electron microscope - in Charleston, South Carolina, NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle said.

That equipment and consultation with various specialists helped lead to the latest determination, said Steve Morton, a research oceanographer with the Charleston lab. It’s not known whether the spores belong to one of the 7,800 known rust fungi species, NOAA said.

“The spores are unlike others we and our network of specialists have examined. However, many rust fungi of the Arctic tundra have yet to be identified,” Morton said in a news release.

Residents of Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo village of about 430 people in northwest Alaska, found the substance in its lagoon - giving the lagoon an orange sheen - and clumps of the orange stuff on the beach on August 3. A resident who took pictures of the substance, Mida Swan, told CNN that it had an oily feel, like baby oil.

No one knew what it was. Village leaders were concerned that the substance might be a pollutant, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation sent samples to several labs.

Morton said by phone Thursday that rust fungi grow only on plants. Some grow without harming the plant, but others steal the plant’s nutrients, Morton said. He said it is not clear whether the spores in this case are of a parasitic rust fungus.

Though the fungus doesn’t harm humans, spores in general - like pollen and mold spores - can contribute to respiratory diseases or allergic reactions, Morton said.

Leaders in various state agencies and programs, such as the Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Water and the state's Drinking Water Program, are assessing whether the spores pose a risk to Kivalina and whether any action is necessary, said Emanuel Hignutt, analytical chemistry manager for the state's Environmental Health Laboratory.

The substance appeared to have dissipated days after it came to shore, said Janet Mitchell, Kivalina city administrator.

Kivalina is about 650 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska.

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Filed under: Alaska • Environment • Nature
soundoff (82 Responses)
  1. @ Al

    Look at T-rex's snout. It's massive jaws comprise only a small's olfactory glands (sense of smell) comprise most of it. Most of the animals tiny brain was attatched to it's snout as well, common among all scavengers of dinosaur. (winged scavengers needed good eyesight AND olfactory to find their next meal. Land scavengers only needed a big nose. They couldn't see through hills anyway)

    August 19, 2011 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
    • CT Yankee

      I disagree.........while certainly T-rex's olfactory senses were wired to an area of its brain comprising about half of had a very large brain, not a small one and further saw in color and had forward facing eyes which allowed it to see in three dimensions just like we do only much keener and with greater depth perception due to their enormous size (about the sixe of a softball).........the "small" size of its arms is irrelevant when one considers that snakes with no arms at all are incredibly successful well, the crocodile, which is the T-rex's closet living relative, is another very successful predator that does not use its legs when attacking from its natural habitat (water)..........while your ellusion to its scavenging nature is correct and I agree............its morphology suggests that it was very likely a successful predator as well............I just don't understand the argument that the animal has to be pigeon holed as one or the other when ALL the evidence suggests it was both.

      August 19, 2011 at 9:26 am | Report abuse |
  2. Alfred Brock

    The Center for Disease Control should have been involved already

    August 19, 2011 at 7:20 am | Report abuse |
    • f

      Did you ever see the greatest-but-cancelled TV show called "Invasion" from a a couple of years ago? They're heeeeeerrrrreeeee !!!!!!!

      August 19, 2011 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
  3. michaelfury

    August 19, 2011 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
  4. timestickin

    palin put it their...

    August 19, 2011 at 7:35 am | Report abuse |
    • mental giant

      no bush put it they're

      August 19, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Sum Guy

      Lets see how many times can you guys can mis-use the word "There"???

      August 19, 2011 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  5. James Bond

    And they brought it into the states closer to us. SMH. I should be getting a call soon....

    August 19, 2011 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
  6. UCFknightman

    Is it radioactive? Why does it glow? 🙂

    August 19, 2011 at 7:40 am | Report abuse |
  7. BuzzMann

    "The substance appeared to have dissipated days after it came to shore, said Janet Mitchell, Kivalina city administrator.".....Why do they fail to mention that it was also found in rain collecting barrels some distance from shore on dry land.I doubt that came in with the tide.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Nichole

      They are spores, hence like other molds they can be carried on the wind and will grow and mulitply anywhere they land.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
    • John K

      Rust is a fungal disease of terrestrial plants. Rust spores would originate on land, not the ocean.

      August 19, 2011 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  8. applepious

    Its the ectoplasmic remains of Palin's unfinished term as govenor.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
  9. Al Gore

    Crab people love juice

    August 19, 2011 at 8:25 am | Report abuse |
  10. NoMoreLabels

    The original information conveyed that it was found in rain barrels and other pooled areas after a rain. The other mystery that is not mentioned in the article (hopefully, researchers are looking into it) is how did it get into the upper atmosphere so that it could be washed down by the rain. If this is a previously unknown species, we should be hearing about the 'what' and 'why' of the oily substance soon. Is the oily substance a protective solution that the spore generates or something that happened when it hit water/land?

    August 19, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  11. ZweiStein

    There were neanderthals, we wiped them out – took the world. There were humans, the rust people.......!

    August 19, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  12. teremist

    This is phase one of the invasion of alien fungi. In phase two, the more sophisticated annuals will show up in people's yards. Then it is only a matter of time before the truffles dominate the world.
    I am glad they were able to identify the spore type, if not the actual species. I wonder if they are growing it in the lab in an effort to more definitively identify it?

    August 19, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  13. Madamex

    Wow. A lot of surface receptors on that spore. I hope NOAA investigates this further. Sound like a 'bloom' due to an overabundance of bacteria.

    August 19, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
    • grfld

      When I saw this picture, I thought "Cool. Looks kind of like a weird donut or something..." you are clearly more knowledgable than I am about spores lol

      August 19, 2011 at 9:40 am | Report abuse |
  14. f

    Did you ever see the greatest-but-cancelled TV show called "Invasion" from a a couple of years ago? They're heeeeeerrrrreeeee !!!!!!!

    August 19, 2011 at 10:00 am | Report abuse |
    • CT Yankee

      @f..............maybe great minds do think a like..........that's exactly what i thought when I first read it as well...........i thought Invasion was just great.

      August 19, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  15. michaelfury

    Rust never sleeps.

    August 19, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
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