Bringing Slime Molds Into Focus: Myxomycete Photography with Gim Siew Tan
Delve into a revealing interview with Gim Siew, a pioneering myxomycete photographer in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
During my stay in Malaysia I had the opportunity to meet Gim Siew and embark on numerous long forays into the wilderness surrounding Kuala Lumpur.
Our complementary interests, with her fascination in slime molds and mine in fungi, further enriched these expeditions. Whether under the damp shadow of a log or among the foliage, each outing was a treasure hunt filled with the anticipation of unveiling an unseen organism.
Gim Siew's work offers a stunning spotlight on the overlooked yet extraordinary world of myxomycetes. With a relentless drive to document and share the diversity of slime molds, Gim Siew has made substantial contributions to both the scientific community and public awareness of these fascinating organisms.
In this interview, we’ll explore Gim Siew's journey – from her first awe-struck encounter with a tiny pink blob to her discovery of unique species unreported in Malaysia for nearly a century.
Alongside, we will share some of her incredible photographs, each one a testament to the remarkable diversity of myxomycetes. I am genuinely excited for you to join us on this adventure into the hidden world of slime molds.
How did you first become interested in myxomycetes, and what inspired you to photograph them?
I am an avid hiker and am always intrigued by the beauty of fungi. One day, while checking out a log for fungi, I came across a pink blob, which I almost missed because it was very small. From the live view screen of my camera, they looked like a group of pink beads, and I had never seen anything like that before! Later, I learned it was a myxomycete (myxo in short), commonly known as slime mold.
I photographed more slime molds over some time using my ultra macro lens, and I was amazed to see intricate details - different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. They simply undergo what I call a magical transformation during their maturation process to produce and release spores.
However, they were mostly ignored, unnoticed, or mistaken as fungi. I am determined to showcase the diversities of this miniature structure through my macro shots.
Can you share a particularly memorable encounter with a rare or unique myxomycete species?
In December 2019, I spotted a group of white slime molds on a well-decomposed log in Bukit Wawasan. They looked like hundreds of white trees bearing pearls, and I was completely awestruck to see such beauties growing on the dark forest floor.
I took many close-ups using my Olympus Tough TG-6, a pocket camera I still love using now. I posted some of those photos on my Instagram account (@mymyxos.my) and the Slime Mold Appreciation and Identification group on Facebook.
A well-known slime mold expert, Dmytro Leontyev, identified it as Alwisia bombarda. In the same post, another world-class myxo expert, Edvin Johannesen, indicated that this species hadn't been reported in Malaysia since 1922!
It is not a rare but rather unique species because there are only 4 known species in Genus Alwisia, and this is a tropical species. I was beyond thrilled to report the find in iNaturalist and Global Biodiversity Information Facility 97 years after its last observation in our country.
What challenges do you face when photographing these tiny organisms, and how do you overcome them?
Photographing slime molds in the field can be challenging because critters and bad weather conditions will ruin a stack of photographs. I prefer to photograph slime molds in my 'studio," which has more controllable shooting conditions. Sometimes I take multiple trips to a location to monitor a slime mold's maturing process, especially if it is a new find for me.
I like to know more about the subject I photograph, and identifying slime molds can be very challenging! I am pretty new to microscopy work, and there is so much to learn about sample preparation and the interpretation of the micrographs.
The Slime Mold Identification and Appreciation group on Facebook is a great learning platform. I also have a group of like-minded slime friends with whom I share and exchange information, ideas, or methodologies on slime mold photography.
What equipment and techniques do you find most effective?
I use a technique called focus stacking and do my slime mold photography in my studio. I use a Laowa 25mm f2.8 2.5–5X ultra macro lens to get the magnification I want. This is a fully manual lens, which, in my opinion, is a great lens and affordable. With such high magnification, the depth of field is quite shallow.
What’s your methodology for capturing extreme macro photos of myxomycetes?
To create a sharp image of the entire fruiting body, I mount my camera on an automated focus rail and take multiple images at different depths of field.
The camera is moved forward in increments of 20–50 microns between each image, depending on the magnification and aperture opening of the lens.
Then those images are stacked with specialized software that combines each image's in-focus parts into a composite.
This composite will have the whole fruiting bodies in focus from front to back. This process may take 20 to 45 minutes, but it's worthwhile, in my opinion, because the final image can reveal the tiny details and intricacies of the tiny slime mold.
How do you locate and identify new or rare species of myxomycetes? Are there any specific habitats or environments you focus on?
Slime mold likes humid habitats. They can be found on well-decomposed logs, leaf litter, and any organic materials in the rainy season or near streams in parks and forests. I even find some in my compost heaps and on the mulch in my home garden from time to time.
Slime molds are tiny (0.3 to 5 mm) and can be hard to spot. Big colonies are easier to find because they will appear as a patch that doesn't belong to the log. As for the scattered slime mold, I would go through the leaves or check the side of a log.
I feel that every find is like a new one for me. I may have photographed a slime mold before, but it could have a different look the next time I spot it, so each photo is always unique. As for the rare species, which I call an unreported or undescribed species, I only found it once to date, and it was totally by chance!
How has your work in photographing myxomycetes contributed to the scientific understanding of these organisms?
I guess more people in Malaysia know more about the existence of slime molds now, at least among my circle of friends. I tried to include some scientific information about the slime molds I post on social media.
I hope others can appreciate and develop an interest in this amazing organism. Also, I record my findings and observations on iNaturalist and hope the slime mold communities from other parts of the world will have some knowledge of the types of slime molds we have in our country.
What advice would you give to budding photographers or mycologists looking to explore the world of myxomycetes?
Go to your yard, any park near your house, or a forest, and check out any well-decomposed logs during the wet season. That's the best place to start. Train your eyes and learn what they look like and where to look for them. And if you find a slime mold on a log, it will likely have more.
Get a decent camera (I started with Olympus Tough TG-6, which I think is a great and affordable camera) or a phone that can shoot in macro mode.
Can you share a story from your adventures in the field that you think our readers would find particularly fascinating?
Once, I spotted a huge colony of slime mold that looked like yellow noodles in Chinese chow mien.
They were hanging from the side of a wooden plank on a very busy hiking trail at Bukit Gasing. Many passersby wondered why I was in the middle of a flight of ascending steps. I spent quite a bit of time photographing them and monitoring them over two days.
The slime mold was later identified as Fuligo aurea, an uncommon species! After dehiscence (the splitting or bursting open), they looked like coils of springs which were super cool!
How do you envision the future of myxomycete research and photography, and what role do you hope to play in it?
I think there are not many findings or reports of slime molds from some parts of the world, such as Africa or some countries in Asia. I believe that many slime molds are yet to be discovered in these countries. As a citizen scientist in Malaysia, I hope to keep an archive of slime molds from our country and collect specimens for the local herbarium for future research.
Lastly, are there any upcoming projects or endeavors you'd like to share with our readers?
I will have my online gallery of slime mold from Malaysia soon! At the same time, I am expanding my slime mold photography to microphotography, which involves using at least a 10X microscope objective lens.
Gim Siew's work is a wonderful combination of passion, curiosity, and scientific exploration. She doesn't just take stunning photos, she helps us understand the world of slime molds a little better.
We're excited to see her upcoming online gallery and her continuing adventures in photography. Whether you're a photography enthusiast, interested in science, or just love learning new things, we hope Gim Siew's journey will inspire you to find and appreciate the hidden wonders around you.
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