October 10, 2007

Fungi: the Stinky, the Slimy, and the Downright Confusing

I finally had time today to go collecting for the first time in two weeks. I wasn't about to let a little rain and fog stop me, and it was well worth my time. The fungi I collected today are not among the most glamorous. Some might even find them a little bit repugnant, in fact. I don't, but then again I haven't found a filamentous chitinous organism yet that doesn't have something fascinating about it in my eyes. That's probably why I've dedicated myself to studying them. On with the show, then.

I made my second collection of Calocera cornea, one of the most primitive wood-decomposing fungi, today. I'm beginning to suspect that there may be more than one species included under the epithet, though. The growth habit of today's specimens were a bit different than the last batch and the basidia are appreciably narrower and more angular as well. I have a hunch that when the people investigating the white-rotter phylogeny get around to sequencing these specimens they won't match the last bunch, even though both key out morphologically. It could also just be a great deal of phenotypic plasticity in the species. I guess we'll eventually see.
This one will be familiar to most people. It's Ganoderma applanatum, commonly called artists' conk because one can use the pore layer as a sketch pad due to its habit of bruising black. The odd-looking stuff on the pore layer in the second photo is actually the remains of another species that this conk was dueling with and apparently defeating.
Considered a choice edible, Grifola frondosa (aka Hen of the Woods) is a sought-after fungus that is also a likely plant pathogen. This one was growing at the base of a sugar maple. This is an easy-to-identify edible for beginners, particularly because even the look-alikes (one Meripilus and another obscure genus I don't recall at the moment) are good edibles, so if you're familiar with the basic morphology you're unlikely to make a dangerous mistake. On the other hand, microscopic examination of this specimen revealed the presence of large numbers of bacteria and protozoa, much moreso than in any other live fungus I've examined. This specimen was teeming with microorganisms, in fact, and since fungi generally produce antibiotics to ward off such inhabitants, it seems likely that this specimen — and possibly the species in general — might not be very effective antibiotic producers. In any case, be careful to cook this fungus very thoroughly before consuming it. I know that I will!
Despite its small size and delicate appearance, Mycena pseudoinclinata packs a wallopingly bad smell. I can best describe it as fishy with overtones of bleach. Since this species doesn't have a common name, I propose calling it the lutefisk mushroom. It's not considered edible, but I couldn't resist taking a nibble to see what such a bad-smelling mushroom would taste like... and you know, it tastes about as bad as it smells.
Now that we've had the stinky, how about a little of the slimy? Pholiota aurivella is a lot of the slimy. Not only is the cap covered with a sticky-slippery gelatinized layer, but the core of the stipe has been entirely replaced by yellow gelatinized hyphae as well. It's a useful wood-decomposer that helps bring down standing but dead tree trunks, but it has elevated sliminess to a true art form. It's also the species that I found in direct competition with the Ganoderma applanatum above. As ganoderms are generally biochemical powerhouses, the conk fruiting body had already started disintegrating the pholiota. I note that this mushroom is listed by some authors as an edible and by others as causing gastric distress. I wouldn't advise eating it, but knowing what you know about it now, would you have considered it? Nothing like a nice mouthful of fresh, glutinous mucilage to start the day off right!
Here's the "downright confusing." This mushroom doesn't quite key out to anything. Even microscopic examination hasn't revealed it's identity, although it does give an idea of which clade it belongs to. We're calling it Stropharia affinus squamosa right now because it is morphologically most similar to Stropharia squamosa, but S. squamosa is a rather delicate mushroom and nowhere near the size and robustness of what's pictured here. On the other hand, both S. squamosa and this specimen (and the several others found growing around, but not on, a fallen hemlock trunk) share an important trait; neither one possesses chrysocystidia in the hymenium. Stropharia, it turns out, isn't a real genus at all; it's polyphyletic, and the sister "genus" Psilocybe is in the same shape. Stropharia and Psilocybe each contain species that are more appropriately placed in the other genus. Psilocybes also lack chrysocystidia, and it may turn out that the mushroom pictured is some new kind of Psilocybe (it has some characteristics that would place it in that genus) or some new Stropharia (it has plenty of stropharian traits, too), or it may simply be a species that isn't normally found in this part of the world that somehow managed to gain a foothold in a new habitat. Which of these is the case won't be known until I get a DNA sequence from this critter. That may take a few days to get to, though. It certainly won't be happening until sometime next week at th earliest.
If there were such a thing as a generic fungus, this would probably be it. The rough English translation of this fungus' epithet, Tyromyces chioneus, is "snow-white cheese-like fungus." It's another one of those fungi that most people have seen at some point but don't recall seeing because there is simply nothing remarkable about its appearance. It's not edible, probably because trying to eat this would be like gnawing on thick rubber and likely because it wouldn't taste very good. Its probably indigestible, but it's unlikely to be toxic at all. As much into fungi as I am, even I have to admit that this is a pretty boring species. I still collected, identified, and will dutifully add it to our herbarium, though.
My next collecting trip will be on Sunday, though I don't know where I'll be going yet.

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