It’s been a few weeks since I have put my boots on and breathed the cool hill air, but I made up for it today. The weather was very cold and brought a light slow rain cloud that could be seen coming from the sea for an hour before it arrived. The air was still all day as fog hugged the valleys like pools of frigid water.
For this walk we headed out onto the Sallagh Braes. Before we left we debated the origin of the name. I thought it might be the ‘willow road’ as the Irish word for willow is ‘seileach’ which sounds similar. But it turns out that it was more likely to be the ‘dirty road’ as the word ‘sallagh’ means dirt or foulness.
The walk took us along the edge of a steep cliff which was the result of a huge landslip many aeons ago. The walk was enjoyable on its own and the company was such that you would laugh in any conditions. But as a bonus, the walk threw up some wonderful finds including the strange phenomenon of ‘star jelly’ (see below).
The first random thing to be spotted was what I assume to be a type of meadow coral fungus standing out like a strange alien in the grass:
It’s the type of thing that looks out of place and makes you afraid to touch for fear that it might come alive or sting like an anemone. The next encounter was some sort of small mushroom that looked like a cherry with a perfect hole on top. I would love to know what this is:
The final weirdness we stumbled upon was that of pwdre ser (or rot of the stars), also known as star jelly.
Pwdre ser is something you would easily walk past and think either nothing of or think of it as disgusting. It looks like huge lumps of snot. However, it is a bit of a mystery and an enigma. For a long time people though it was the leftovers of falling stars (meteorites), hence the name.
William Somervile, in 1740, wrote in The Talisman:
Swift as the shooting star, that gilds the night
With rapid transient Blaze, she runs, she flies;
Sudden she stops nor longer can endure
The painful course, but drooping sinks away,
And like that falling Meteor, there she lyes
A jelly cold on earth.
In recent years investigations have begun to try and establish the true origin on the random jelly (see here and here and here). Some believed it to be a bacterial mould or maybe a fungus. But the conditions of finding it are unusual. Sometimes it can be found on grass, on logs, on rocks and even in large amounts. It does seem to be found either at early spring or at the end of autumn. Some experiments have been done and I think I remember reading that they found it to be non living. The strongest possibility is that of frogs.
Have you ever looked at frog spawn and wondered how all that spawn fitted into one tiny frog? It may be due to the packing material that the eggs come in, the jelly. This packing material takes up very little room but rapidly and dramatically expands when it comes into contact with water. This is thought to be the jelly. It is believed that when a raven or heron (or maybe even a fox or badger) eats a female frog with this packing material unused, the material comes into contact with the predator’s stomach juices during digestion and expands. The result is the predator vomiting up the jelly.
I have seen this jelly a few times many years ago and wondered at the time what it was. I wondered so much that I looked into it and found the information I have stated above. However, there has always been doubt and no hard evidence about the frog theory. So, I have always kept an eye out for it. A few times friends have mentioned that they seen it and also wondered. Only a few weeks ago a colleague on the ML assessment mentioned it to everyone and was curious about its origins.
When I found it today I was delighted (strange, I know). But then one of my friends exclaimed, “and look , a dead frog!”. And not even 1 meter away was a frog, bloated and sad.
A dead frog is not a frequent sight at the best of times, but so close to the dirt of a star, it cannot be ignored.
After all that excitement we got to wander off the hill as the light began to play around us. The winter night is quick to come but its strange and brilliant character cannot be ignored. On the last leg of the walk we were treated to a view of the gathering fog wrapping around Slemish and the valleys.
I have been pondering this and have some questions. Why do most reports of pwdre ser see only the jelly and no frog or frog parts? Why are all the examples mostly clear apart from a few that I have heard of being slightly red in colour (tinged with blood)? AS I understand it (I could be wrong) birds like herons and ravens swallow their food whole and without chewing. Is it possible that a live frog empties itself (pee, poo, and egg packing material) inside the predator and causes the predator to vomit the frog and material? At this stage it is probably likely that the predator would then re-swallow the frog leaving no trace but the jelly unless it was spooked or disturbed after it had vomited.
Based on a few conversations on web forums it seems that the ‘pwdre ser’ of long ago was more than likely referring to nostoc which is a type of cyanobacteria. However, the clear jelly that I found, and other examples on the net, are part of a collection of substances that many people call pwdre ser (or star jellies) today. So in time, the definition of what people call pwdre ser may have widened over time.
Also, I had stated that I had never heard of anyone finding frog parts in the jelly (the ‘frog jelly’ star jelly). However, I have since discovered from chatting on forums that people have found partially digested frog parts in some finds.
Or maybe it IS pwdre ser?
I was doing some more searching about on the internet and found the abstract of a 1926 Nature article. It seems this debate is a bit Déjà vu:
Pwdre Ser (The Rot of the Stars)
H. A. BAYLIS
PERHAPS I may be allowed to reopen a subject which gave rise to a very interesting correspondence in NATURE in 1910. I refer to the mysterious jelly-like substance found lying about in open spaces, and popularly connected with ‘shooting-stars,’ about which Prof. T. McKenny Hughes contributed an interesting article to these columns on June 23, 1910. Many suggestions as to the origin of this substance were made both by Prof. Hughes and by later correspondents, but no definite conclusion seems to have been reached. Of course it cannot be taken for granted that the ‘jelly’ is always of the same nature. It may well be that the ‘jellies’ recorded by some observers were the plasmodia of Myxomycetes, or masses of Nostoc or some other organism. But it seems to have been suggested so early as 1667 by Merrett that the jelly consisted of the viscera of frogs. He says (I quote from Prof. Hughes) ”Regiae Societati palam ostendi solummodo oriri ex intestinis ranarum a corvis in unum locum congestis, quod aliis etiam ejusdem societatis viri praestantissimi postea confirmarunt”