The Lucky Little Seaweed
A Great Story Parable
by Mark McMenamin
Once upon a very long time ago (430 million years ago, to be more precise) there lived a sad little seaweed near the shore of a shallow sea. The little seaweed loved its warm and well-lit aquatic home, but the neighborhood was becoming more dangerous with each passing week. Big, fast-growing seaweeds were beginning to crowd the area and shade out the smaller, less aggressive forms. Voracious animals, who swam or crawled within the ocean, had developed a taste for seaweed salad. These animals were becoming more numerous every day and were even beginning to threaten the seaweeds that lived right next to shore in the saltiest water, a zone that used to be safe. The sad little seaweed was feeling the pinch of increased competition.
One dreary morning, in the shade of a newly grown patch of aggressive seaweed, the little seaweed met an aquatic fungus.
"Excuse me," said the fungus, "but I am about to infect and eat you."
"Why would you want to do that?" asked the little seaweed.
"Well," replied the fungus, "it is getting harder and harder to make a living on this part of the sea floor. I normally prefer to eat dead organic matter like old decayed parts of seaweeds but voracious animals have been devouring my favorite foods before I get my share. With their fishy fins or crabby claws, these animals move faster than I can stretch my fungal fingers."
"You know," offered the little seaweed, "I have a similar problem. Beneath these big seaweeds, I can't find enough light to grow. They are shading me out, leaving me weak. The future looks bleak, so you might as well infect me and get it over with."
The fungus was happy to oblige. Fungal fingers, what scientists call hyphae, gently probed the little seaweed, entering here and there, beginning to suck away the living fluids, molecule by molecule. Just then there was a major earthquake. A portion of the seafloor heaved upward, becoming land, and the seawater drained away. The big seaweeds went tumbling back into the ocean, carried along by the ebbing water. But the little seaweed, anchored as it was to the fungus, was left stranded ashore.
"Now what?" asked the little seaweed in desperation.
"No problem for me" replied the fungus. "My hyphae can grow down, down into the mud, just as easily as I can grow deeper and deeper into you. I can grow my fungal fingers down as far as I need to. When they reach water, I just suck it up. So you see, I am in no danger of drying out."
"But you are," the fungus continued, "and I suppose I ought to get as much out of you as I can before the sun bakes you to a crisp."
The fungus continued sucking out the living fluid from the little seaweed, molecule by molecule. But in the bright sun, the little seaweed was beginning to taste different. The fungus discovered that the living fluids it was feasting upon were becoming sweeter and sweeter.
"Say, you are a sweet little seaweed," said the fungus. "I would like to taste your sweetness forever. It seems a shame to kill you."
"I'm sweet because I am finally getting enough sunlight," the little seaweed explained. "When I get enough sunlight, I can create lots of sugar by photosynthesis."
"That is a most admirable talent," observed the fungus, with a hint of envy in its voice. Suddenly, the fungus had a bright idea: "Little seaweed, I have a proposal for you."
"I'm listening" replied the little seaweed.
The fungus continued with excitement, "You know, my hyphae can provide nutrition as well as take it away. That is my special talent controlling the flow of water, nutrients, and such. The interesting thing is that I can just as easily send you fluids as suck them out of you."
The little seaweed felt a glimmer of hope shimmer through its bright green gelatinous skin. "Tell me more," the little seaweed begged.
"Well, if I provide you with water and mineral nutrients, can you guarantee me a continuous supply of sugar?"
"Oh yes!" replied the little seaweed. "In this bright sunlight I can produce much more sugar than I could possibly use all by myself. I am afraid of drying out, however, but you appear to have already solved that problem."
"I think we have a deal," said the fungus.
Thus began the most "fruitful" collaboration of all time the coming together of seaweed and fungus to form an entirely new kind of life on Earth: land plants. So now, every time you admire a great oak tree, run across a lovely green lawn, or munch on a salad, remember the little seaweed and this tale of teamwork at the ocean's edge.
MARK MCMENAMIN is Professor of Geology at Mount Holyoke College. A paleontologist, he is the author of The Garden of Ediacara and Hypersea: Life on Land.
This is a fabulous parable to act out in a group. For a downloadable version of this parable, scripted for three parts, click here: "Seaweed script PDF format".
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