Transplants in Southeast Alaska

and the consequences of forced emigration

Since the 1920s, mammals of fourteen species have been transplanted from one location (mostly but not always in Alaska) to another location in Southeast. Many of the official transplants were done with the hope of establishing viable populations of game species in new places, with the goal of providing more prey for humans. The processes of capturing and transporting the unwilling immigrants commonly resulted in high mortality, even before the animals were deposited in their new sites.

Many of the transplantations failed. An attempt to establish a moose population near the Chickamin River in the 1960s failed altogether; all the transplanted young moose died. At that time, officials declared it was too expensive to do a preliminary habitat assessment and thought it more practical to just dump the moose there and see what happened. A number of other transplant attempts over several decades are said to have failed: deer to the Taiya Valley, goats to Chichagof, mink to Strait Island, muskrats and marmot to Prince of Wales, wolf to Coronation Island, snowshoe hare to Admiralty and other islands. Ill-advised attempts in the 40s and 50s to establish populations of non-native raccoons failed.

Some transplants were successful, apparently without any serious preliminary assessments: the mountain goats now living on Baranof are descendants of the transplants in the 1920s, and marten were moved to Prince of Wales, Baranof, and Chichagof in the 1940s and 1950s. After a habitat assessment in Berners Bay, a number of young moose were deposited there in 1958 and 1960; they established themselves successfully and that local population has grown. It may be emigrants from that area that we observe near Cowee Creek, Herbert River, and the Mendenhall Glacier. The possible effects of moose browsing on the structure of the vegetation in Berners Bay are apparently not known; given the notable cropping of willows and other shrubs in Gustavus, one might wonder about the effects on nesting habitats for birds—especially in the light of research elsewhere documenting that over-browsing can drastically reduce bird habitat.

Elk (a non-native species) were brought to four islands in Southeast in the mid to late 1900s. The elk, from Oregon and Washington, were exchanged for mountain goats from Alaska. Only the 1987 introduction of elk to Etolin Island was successful, and elk eventually dispersed from there to nearby Zarembo and other islands. Some preliminary habitat assessments were made, but post-facto concern about possible competition with existing deer populations arose, so continued monitoring and perhaps management are necessary.

After marten were transplanted to the three big islands, red squirrels were often introduced as prey for marten. It later became clear that marten really prefer voles and it is unlikely that the squirrel transplants had much effect on the introduced marten populations. However, it is very likely that the squirrels are having a negative impact on nesting birds on those islands, because they prey on eggs and nestlings.

Collectively, these attempts to establish new populations of mammals are a very mixed bag. There was a high cost in mortality of animals (not to mention dollar costs of capture and transport), many transplant efforts failed, and there was little attention paid to possible consequences. The impetus for game translocations in Southeast may have abated somewhat, and as our ecological understanding has grown over the years, it seems likely that any further transplants would be done with greater concern not only for the animals themselves but also for proper preliminary assessments and the ecological consequences.

Several additional transplants were done in attempts to augment existing populations or to re-establish a previously resident population. However, the effect of adding new animals to an existing population (deer to Kupreanof in 1979, for example) is usually not known. A transplant effort in 1989 attempted to restore a much-reduced population of mountain goats on Mt Juneau, with the stated intent of improved wildlife viewing (!). All the transported goats initially moved away, but by the early 2000s, goats were again seen on the ridge, although no one seems to know if these animals are related to the transplants or from a natural population on nearby ridges.

Sea otters have been re-introduced to many places in Southeast at various times, to restore the natural population that was extirpated by human activity. These transplants are apparently successful and the population of sea otters in Southeast is growing. The consequences of sea otter presence are currently being studied by faculty and students of UAF.

The historical information in this essay derived from Tom Paul’s 2009 ‘Game Transplants in Alaska”, ADFG Technical Bulletin #4. In addition to the official transplantations, there have been an unknown number of unofficial and mostly unrecorded ones, done by private citizens.

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Fungi and Wildlife

animal harvesters of fungal delights

Fungi are made up of vegetative parts, which are filamentous structures that typically lie underground, and reproductive parts, which take various forms, sometimes finger-like or shelves, or commonly as mushrooms with a stalk and a cap. But some fungi never produce above-ground parts; the small, round or lumpy reproductive structures are underground—these are known as truffles.

Fungi reproduce by means of spores—each tiny spore containing the makings of a new individual. Most fungi, such as ordinary mushrooms, disperse their spores aerially—releasing the mature spores from the mushroom cap to vagrant breezes in the forest understory. Truffles do it differently: they rely on small mammals to dig them up and eat them, passing the spores through the digestive tract and depositing them in feces.

Here in Southeast, there are two major harvesters of truffles: the red squirrel and the flying squirrel. The red-backed vole also does this and other small mammals may do so occasionally. These rodents also harvest typical mushrooms, sometimes caching them, to be eaten later, after they dry. Red squirrels do this very regularly; flying squirrels in other regions cache many kinds of food but apparently they have not been recorded to do so in Alaska.

squirrel-with-mushroom-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

The caloric content of fresh mushrooms is low, far lower than that of nuts and seeds. However, dried mushrooms compare more favorably, although they still average only about two-thirds of the caloric content of conifer seeds. Mushrooms are very low in fat, compared to spruce and hemlock seeds, but they can be a pretty good source of carbohydrates and protein, especially when dried. They may also provide an assortment of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Fresh mushrooms can be a source of water during season dry periods.

However, the actual food value of fungi to rodent consumers depends in part on the intake rate. Taking a bite of mushroom or truffle is quick and easy. But when eating conifer seeds, squirrels have to peel back the cone scale and trim the membranous ‘wing’ from each seed before eating it. Although squirrels are remarkably fast at extracting conifer seeds from a cone, it still seems that the food intake rate would be slower than when eating fungi. The actual food value also depends on how efficiently a squirrel’s digestive process extracts energy and nutrients from the material that is ingested. Some studies of squirrel diets suggest that the digestibility of fungal tissue is considerably less than that of conifer seeds. Nevertheless, squirrels regularly eat fungi, so there must be sufficient reward to make it worthwhile.

The relationship between truffles and squirrels (and voles) is mutualistic—the mammals get dinner and the truffles disperse their spores. For truffles, the relationship is obligatory; they are dependent on small mammals for spore dispersal. For the rodents, the relationship is more variable, depending in part on the availability other food sources (for example, squirrels might eat more truffles in years when the cone crop is poor). Mushroom-producing fungi sometimes get spores dispersed by rodents that harvest mushrooms; the spores ingested are viable after passing through the rodent’s guts, so in addition to the normal, aerial means, the fungi benefit from rodent assistance. This amounts to a casual sort of mutualism in which both parties benefit but the relationship is not obligatory for either one (in contrast to that for truffles).

Now the plot thickens! Many fungi, both truffles and mushrooms, are mycorrhizal—forming mutualistic relationships with the roots of various plants. The plants provide carbohydrates to the growing fungi and the fungi supply various nutrients to the plants. In most cases, both participants in the relationship grow better with the partner than they do alone; in some cases the relationship is obligatory to at least one of the partners.

Thus, in this network of interactions, one well-developed mutualism (the fungus-plant relationship) intersects with another one (the rodent-fungus relationship). Something for everybody! A nicely tangled web!

Snow at last!

peripatetic mammals and birds, and a fungus attack

After a very dreary, dismal January, February produced some nice snow. Not enough, of course, and it didn’t last. But for a few days, snow made the daylight hours brighter and provided splendid opportunities for reading critter tracks. Here are some samples, along with ancillary observations.

A morning snowshoe walk at SAGA meadows, with fresh snow and partial sunshine was very productive. A river otter left its distinctive five-toed prints and sliding track all along the base of the ridge on the eastern side of the valley; it came from the Amalga area, heading to the saddle where the old horse tram crossed over to the Eagle-Herbert drainage. It’s a lot shorter to go by land than by sea (out around the Boy Scout beach to the mouth of the river), but we wondered why this individual chose to go by land. Maybe it likes sliding better than swimming? Long overland journeys are not unheard-of: we once tracked an otter from the Hilda Creek canyons up and over to the Fish Creek drainage near the start of the upper cross-country ski loop.

Red squirrels had been very active, making highways between brush piles and trees, and often diving under the snow, popping up several feet farther on. Under the snow there were a few little caverns whose floors were littered with the remnants of alder cones, where a squirrel had a picnic.

Snowshoe hares left their tracks especially under the drooping conifer branches. It was clear that hares had been munching twigs of highbush cranberry—small twigs of many bushes had been recently clipped and hare tracks nearby left no doubt about the clippers. Small well-trampled areas indicated a place, perhaps a latrine (?), where a hare had spent some time, but only a few of these had scattered pellets. We speculated that the hares might have re-ingested fresh pellets to extract more nutrients (a habit they share with many rodents).

A small bird—probably a junco—had hopped around under a low-hanging spruce branch and then flitted off, leaving short wing traces in the snow. A mouse or vole had travelled from one thicket to another, and some small rodent had nibbled the bark of tiny shore pines. A porcupine had wandered about before the last of the snow fell, leaving now-blurred but unmistakable traces of its passage. Near a small frozen slough, a mink or marten had walked over toward a tree; the prints were not clear enough for us to discern the subtle clues that might tell us which kind of beast it was and the trail was lost in a snowless patch under dense spruces.

A flock of red crossbills enlivened the morning, calling and flying from spruce-top to spruce-top, occasionally prying open a cone to extract the seeds. Did their messy feeding activities contribute to the fall of seeds we saw scattered on the snow or did the wind bring them all down?

We found good examples of the rough-bark fungus infection on alders, which featured in a recent essay. Some of the infected sites had been heavily used by sapsuckers, but these birds had been active in many places, leaving broad patches of their sap wells in the bark. Very young alders, still with their reddish bark, also showed signs of the fungus attack.

That was a good day, and so was the next one, when we snowshoed the upper loop at Eaglecrest. It was still snowing a bit up there, while the rain fell at lower elevations. Here, in addition to lots of squirrel tracks and those of a mouse, ptarmigan had been very busy, sometimes running across a wide open space, sometimes walking sedately from bush to bush. In one place we saw a pair of traces where ptarmigan had glided down onto the snow, wallowed forward for a few feet, and taken flight once more, leaving tell-tale depressions (from the jumping take-off) flanked by wing marks.

Recent sightings

…a collection of small discoveries from recent walks.

Along the road to the Eagle’s Nest and Pittman Ridge, there was a small stand of fireweed that stood out from the rest. The petals were white, while the narrow sepals showing between the petals were the usual vivid pink. A very showy display.

White-petal-fireweed-2-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

At Point Louisa, on a moderately low tide, the rocky shores and pools held the usual assortment of sea stars, chitons, anemones, and urchins. I was entertained by a couple of urchins: in one pool, the urchin sat in a clam-shell bowl that was a perfect fit. And in the next pool, another urchin wore a sizable clam shell as a hat, which covered the urchin completely, to the very tips of its spines—another perfect fit. Urchins often bear stones or bits of shell on their spines, possibly for camouflage or, in some places, perhaps protection from UV light.

A stroll on Eagle Beach brought a surprise—two woolly-bear caterpillars (Lophocampa maculata). One marched steadily along the sand, struggling a bit over small divots of loose sand, but persevering. The other one trudged rapidly up toward the rye grass, made a ninety-degree turn and scurried along for several yards, and then made another right-angle turn back down toward the damp sand near the water’s edge. Both explorers visited milkwort and goose-tongue plants but did not seem to eat anything. According to various sources, these caterpillars customarily eat the leaves of poplar, willow, and alder, so it was a puzzle just why they were down on the beach. If they were looking for a place to pupate, this wasn’t it!

Along a short stretch of the Treadwell Ditch trail we found a series of piles of red bunchberries. Each berry had been opened, and the single fat seed extracted. Surely the work of a rodent—a squirrel or maybe a mouse. In contrast to that pattern of consumption, on Gold Ridge we found some patches of bunchberry in which the berries had been systematically pecked open, removing bits of fruit pulp but leaving the seeds intact. Birds, no doubt, but which? There are very few reports in the natural history literature of birds eating bunchberries.

Skunk cabbage fruiting stalks are starting to fall over and ‘melt’ into puddles of ooze containing lots of seeds. When I first arrived in Juneau, many years ago, I found some of these things that had just fallen over and started to take up water (before the oozy stage). At that earlier stage, each seed was surrounded by a jelly coat, and I (being new in the area and quite ignorant of local matters) took the aggregations of jelly-coated seeds to be frog eggs. But what were those ‘eggs’ doing in the middle of the forest??? Ah well, I learned! On a recent walk, I found the remnants of a skunk cabbage fruiting stalk, with the central pith intact, indentations showing where the seeds had been, and no seeds on the ground. The pithy center had been plucked clean by a seed-predator, such as a squirrel, or a jay, or a flock of chickadees, or…who knows?

Gold Ridge provided several additional observations of interest: A tangle of brush suddenly shook vigorously, drawing our attention. In the middle of the tangle, a red squirrel harvested a cluster of the devil’s club berries and made off with it. We often see devil’s club seeds dispersed by bear scats, but this was the first time (that I can recall) I’d seen a squirrel presumably intent on having the seeds for lunch. Farther up the trail, we surprised a well-grown ptarmigan chick, and stopped to watch. The chick was apparently not too sure what to do: it ran up the trail a little way, came back, turned around and ran up several yards, came back, and finally took off up the trail and into the brush. I was charmed by the fluttering of the white feather over its legs—like lacey pantalettes.

Time out for tea and crumpets at a rocky viewpoint, with marmots whistling on all sides (a couple of illegally off-leash dogs had just gone up the trail). Time, then, to examine our immediate surroundings more closely. Here’s a patch of trailing raspberry, in the subalpine zone, not its usual forest habitat. The pretty little rosettes of pussytoes leaves; the tiny, now-empty, artistic seed capsules of white mountain heather; a lonely purple flower of the miniscule moss gentian. The odd growth pattern of the alpine harebell, with the single flower borne on a stem that seems to emerge from underneath a low rosette of leaves.

A nearby stand of copperbush was covered with immature fruits of a curious shape, rather like small green pumpkins with curved handles on top. I was reminded of the stones used for the game of curling. A few laggard copperbush flowers attracted some bumblebees, who did not linger long.

Hmmm….pumpkins and curling stones, pantalettes, and who knows what else might we find!?

Bizarre February

porcupines, squirrles, and a peripatetic beaver

This had been the winter that wasn’t! On at least one day, the temperatures soared into the fifties. Many days saw temperatures in the forties. The snow alternatively got crusty (at night) and soggy. It became difficult for Parks and Rec hikers to choose a trail for their twice-a-week outings.

We tried the Herbert Glacier trail. It worked fine for skiers, but snowshoers were in for serious ankle-twisting on the unevenly packed snow. Not fun. The Auke Nu trail was pretty good in most places, with only occasional sections of frozen, deep bootprints that are so difficult to walk on; the descent was facilitated by snowshoes, after the sun had softened the snow.

When the group decided to go to Peterson Lake, a few hikers rebelled, thinking that snowshoeing this trail would be as miserable as the Herbert trail. Walkers that had passed when the snow was soft left deep bootprints, and now these had frozen. Some of the would-be hikers, weary of lurching over the frozen bootprints, turned back and went home. The rebellious ones went, instead, to the Eaglecrest area, on a day when the lifts were not running, so the ski-runs were not full of fast traffic.

We wandered around, on and off the trail, enjoying sunshine and peace. Mount Ben Stuart was spectacular: the slanting sun brought the lateral ridges into high relief and framed the snowy twin summits against a backdrop of purple-black cloud.

The snow was firm enough to walk on but soft enough to show the tracks of a busy animal community. Peripatetic porcupines had ambled here and there, leaving a web of tracks over a wide area. A skinny, flimsy spruce branch whose tip was well-buried in snow had been recently de-barked by a hungry porcupine. It was surprising that a hefty porcupine was evidently able to climb several feet up the spindly, wobbly branch, gnawing all the way.

Red squirrels had made little highways from tree to tree. One was actively moving spruce cones from one hole to another. Snowshoe hares left evidence of their passage. A weasel had bounded down a long meadow, leaping several feet with each bound, neatly placing its hind feet just on top of the prints left by the front feet.

The snow was very deep but in a few places there were openings down to running water. At a couple of these water-holes, we found concentrations of the distinctive tracks of a beaver. We couldn’t believe our eyes, so we tried to make those tracks belong to almost anything else; but in reality, there was no mistaking those prints.

The big mystery is why a beaver would be up there in February. Beavers usually hunker down in their lodges in winter, but this one was unseasonably active. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen beaver activity at Eaglecrest; a few years ago, one burrowed into a streambank and tried to build a little dam. The divide between the Fish Creek drainage and the Hilda Creek drainage lies at Eaglecrest, and when young-adult beavers from lower down in those drainages leave their natal ponds in search of a new home, they may sometimes go uphill. But to find one in February was really weird; perhaps our bizarre weather caused a young adult to start its dispersal earlier than usual.

Middens

heaps of junk are a naturalist’s treasure

This interesting and useful word comes ultimately from an old Scandinavian term for a dunghill. The sense has been broadened to include heaps of all kinds of refuse and junk.

Archaeologists love human middens (except perhaps those that can sometimes accumulate in the bedrooms of certain young, or the backyards of not so young, persons…). These scientists mine around in ancient piles of shells and bones and debris, often finding such treasures as ceramic shards, broken and discarded tools, cordage and nets, lost ornaments of hard materials, charcoal, even plant and insect remains. It all gives them a good source of information for interpreting by-gone ways of life for humans. Sometimes it also yields information on changes in animal and plant communities over hundreds and thousands of years and, in coastal areas, information on locations of ancient shorelines. (Juneau has its very own large and ever-growing midden in the Lemon Creek area.)

Shell middens, up to several thousand years old, have been found in the Aleutians, on the north slope, and all over coastal Southeast, except where long sandy beaches are common. On Prince of Wales, middens composed mostly of barnacle and mussel shells have been estimated to be as much as five thousand five hundred years old. Many others are more recent.

Other animals regularly create middens too. Muskrats harvest cattails and other aquatic vegetation, typically eating only part of the plant. The leftovers pile up, as the muskrat returns again and again to the same lunch spot. The heap of vegetation then offers a dry place for future meals (but I don’t know if the muskrat cares about that).

Here in Southeast, bushy-tailed woodrats live on some of the nunataks in the coastal range of mountains. Woodrats are also known as packrats, for their habit of collecting and piling up all sorts of miscellaneous junk. Excavation of packrat middens in the deserts down south has provided important information about past climates and environments, as long ago as forty thousand years. However, I don’t think anyone has studied the woodrats in our regional populations.

Red squirrels are the well-known midden-makers. They have favorite spots for peeling the scales off cones to extract the edible seeds. The rejected scales and cone cores pile up, sometimes a foot or more deep. In some cases, a midden is spread out over a sizable area. I once found one near Atlin that was over eighteen yards in diameter; this one had been used a long time!

The accumulation of cone debris often blankets the squirrels’ burrows, probably providing some protection from cold and wet. Squirrels often cache their harvested cones in the burrows or between the roots of trees, to keep them from drying out and opening prematurely, letting the seeds fall out and get lost. And they sometimes dine near the entrances to the burrow, building up a midden. When a squirrel midden covers a cache of food, some sources conflate the terms, making cache and midden mean the same thing. But it is helpful to keep those words distinct: one for the rejects on the surface, the other for the still-useful cones in storage. The accompanying photograph shows a midden of cone debris with a pile of still-closed spruce cones on top. The squirrel that owns this pile will, presumably, move those cone below-ground to a cache, where the dampness will keep the cones from opening and shedding the seeds prematurely.

Here in Southeast, red squirrels commonly seem to live and nest in those burrows, but in the Interior I think they typically nest in collected bundles of leaves and other vegetation placed up in trees. (Also, next to my house, behind a pile of lumber, there is a beautiful round nest, which I am loath to disturb.) Those ball-shaped bundles are called ‘dreys’.

octopus-den-and-midden-annette-smith
Octopus den and midden. Photo by Annette Smith

Who else makes middens? Octopuses often pile up stones and shells in front of their dens. Marine biologists use the accumulation to locate the dens and analyze the shells to determine the diet of the den-dwellers. One kind of octopus favors snails for dinner, discarding the shells out in front of the den as usual. But in this case the shell pile often doesn’t grow, because hermit crabs appropriate the snail shells for their own use.

Early fall observations

swimming squirrels and a deadly flower

All around town, the maple trees are flaunting their famous reds and golds, at least on certain branches. In the forest, devil’s club leaves are turning yellow, setting off the clusters of red fruits and brightening the understory. Highbush cranberry shrubs sport variegated sprays of red and pink and yellow and everything in between, with the occasional bonus of bright red berries. High on the mountain slopes the deer cabbage offers another colorful palette, of orange and russet and gold. In the valleys, cottonwoods and willows are spangled with gold and yellow amidst the bronzy green—visual treats against the backdrop of somber green conifers.

The sockeye run in Steep Creek is finishing, so the bears are roaming around in search of alternate foods, while they wait for the coho to arrive. Bear scats show evidence of much consumption of northern ground cone, with some devil’s club seeds, currants, and highbush cranberries. The fish are few, but one day I watched a familiar female bear run down a sockeye, pin it to the bottom of the stream, and then pick up the flapping fish and tote it into the woods near the observation platform. There she ate the whole thing except the gills, starting with the eggs; one by one, she also lapped up all the eggs that got scattered around in the grass.

Someone once told me, in no uncertain terms, that red squirrels cannot swim—if you throw one into the water, it will just sink. Aside from the fact that most folks wouldn’t do that in the first place, the statement is simply not true (at least if the animal is unhurt). I once watched a red squirrel swimming between two islands in Glacier Bay. And recently I watched one deliberately cross a creek, jumping right in and paddling across. Its tail didn’t even get very wet and its back stayed dry. A very competent swimmer, across the current of the stream.

bumblebee-and-monkshood-by-bob-armstrong-2
Photo by Bob Armstrong

On a walk up the ‘new’ road at Eaglecrest, we found a few late monkshood flowers. No bees seemed to be flying to pollinate them, but we were curious about how the flower ‘works.’ That is, how are the male and female parts arranged, and how would a bee transfer pollen? So we opened up a few flowers. Just inside the natural opening, where a bee would enter, is a tuft of stamens, which would place pollen on a bee as it crawled in. Mixed in among the stamens are the female parts, which would receive pollen. But if male and female parts are in the same place, does this plant pollinate itself or is there some way to avoid self-pollination?

A little bit of research revealed that monkshood species are generally protandrous (first male), meaning that the stamens shed mature pollen before the female part of the same flower is receptive. Bees commonly work from the bottom of the array of flowers, with older flowers, toward the top of the plant, where flowers are younger, so they encounter mature female-stage flowers before they reach the mature male-stage flowers. Before they leave the plant, they pick up pollen from the last-visited flowers. Then, when they fly to the next monkshood plant, they start again at the bottom, where they can deposit pollen from the first plant on receptive female parts of the next plant. In addition, monkshoods are largely self-incompatible: mostly unable to fertilize themselves.

Still to be determined, however, is why the entire flower is so complicated in structure.

Why have that ‘hood’ on top? Those purple petal-like pieces that make the flower are not really petals, they are sepals (parts that are structurally external to the petals; they are green in many other kinds of plants). In the back of the flower, under the hood, are two arching structures that are the true petals, and the nectary is located in a spur at the upper end. But why put the nectary way in back, when the working parts are up front? Bees are said to enter the flower, find the nectar, and then back out the way they came in, passing over the sexual parts as they do so. But the flower does not need to be so complex if that’s all the bees do. Next summer we should try to observe bees as they visit monkshood flowers, to see if we can solve these little mysteries.

By dissecting a few monkshood flowers, we found out that the nectar spurs are quite short, so short-tongued bees should be able to reach the nectar easily, without resorting to nectar theft (chewing through the hood and spur to get nectar without touching the sexual parts of the flower).

But flower handlers beware! Monkshood is very poisonous, and very little of it is needed to produce a nasty effect. Even touching it with your hands and then eating something with your hands, or smoking a cigarette, can apparently have undesirable consequences. Large doses are generally lethal.

One day we walked out toward Herbert Glacier but were thwarted in the last stretch by high water. Along the trail we noted a large white slime mold, artistically draped over a low stump. At several points on the side of the trail were stands of the prosaically named purple coral fungus. It grows in damp soils, sending up finger-like fruiting bodies of a distinctive purple color. It is not to be confused with the unrelated but catchily named deadman’s fingers, which is generally blackish (with a white core) and usually grows on decaying wood. I also found a small specimen of what I think was a white coral fungus. Elsewhere I’ve noted fist- to head-sized clumps of a highly branched yellow coral fungus.