Forget the blue whale. A fungus in the USA is the largest organism on the planet, occupying some 2,384 acres (965 hectares) and is estimated to be 2,400 years old (but could be as ancient as 8,650 years!) While nothing that size is found here in South East SA or South West Victoria (that we know of…..), earlier this month we got the chance to learn heaps about these amazing organisms as apart of the Up Close ‘Life in the Deadwood’ events.
25 people turned up to listen to the brilliant Pam Catcheside from the SA State Herbarium and Adelaide Fungal Studies Group, who specialises in the wonderful world of fungi. Pam was also joined by her fantastic fungi photographer husband David Catcheside, and Helen Vonow, collections manager for the State Herbarium. After a fascinating look into this hidden, and often forgotten, world (did you know that fungi are more closely related to animals than plants?), Pam took 18 of us on a further journey into understanding this world, teaching us more about the different types of fungus and how to collect and identify them (remember you need a permit to collect fungi on public land!)
The part of the fungus that we see is only the “fruit” of the organism. The living body of the fungus is a mycelium made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is usually hidden in the soil, in wood, or another food source. A mycelium may fill a single ant, or cover many acres, hence why they can become so big. The branching hyphae can add over a half mile (1 km) of total length to the mycelium each day! These webs live unseen until they develop mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, brackets, cups, “earthstars”, “birds nests,” “corals” or other fruiting bodies. If the mycelium produces microscopic fruiting bodies, people may never notice the fungus.
Most fungi don’t have common names, one reason being that there’s so many out there, and a huge chunk haven’t even been described or have a proper scientific name. However the ones that do have names can be pretty neat, as we learnt out in the field the morning after the workshop at Penola Conservation Park – The Deceiver, Little Pins and my favourite, Witches Butter, a type of Jelly fungus.
We were joined by 16 people for the morning fungi foray, which was a great opportunity to practice what we learnt yesterday (as well as have stroll through a beautiful Conservation Park), before Pam, Dave and Helen were joined by other members of the Fungal Studies Group and spent the rest of the week undertaking collections for the State Herbarium.
What an amazing world it was! A big thank you to Pam, Dave and Helen for sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with us all. I’ll never look at deadwood quite the same, and will be treating these organisms with much more respect. To find out more about fungi, please go to the Fungimap website: www.fungimap.org.au