You've probably seen a mushroom in the woods - growing out of a decomposing log, right? All those little log mushrooms actually belong to a taxonomic group designated the kingdom Fungi. Fungi (singular fungus) include toadstools, slime molds, yeast, mushrooms, athletes foot fungus and more. Some are colorful. Some are drab. Many are yummy. A few are deadly poisonous.
Far too many people in the in the western world today have a bad impression of mushrooms. They don't now much about them, and we're all taught from a young age to stay away from them because "they could kill you". People are afraid of touching wild mushrooms, let alone eating them. Some experts have diagnosed this as Mycophobia or fungiphobia - an unreasonable aversion or fear of mushrooms. If you don't believe me, start telling your friends and family how interested you're becoming in mushrooms and see what their reaction is.
In this biodiversity portal, we'd like to get rid of your mushroom fears and introduce you to the wonderful world of the fungi. We're teaming up with some of the world's best mushroomers, mycologists and researchers to decypher some of the mysteries of this wonderful underground kingdom. Of course, it wouldn't be Untamed Science if we didn't include some pretty amazing videos of our mycological adventures too.
For those of you who want a detailed and technical description of what makes a fungus a fungus, the following paragraph is for you.
A fungus is a eukaryotic organism that is a member of the kingdom Fungi. Fungi are heterotrophic organisms possessing a chitinous cell wall. The majority of species grow as multicellular filaments called hyphae - forming a mycelium; some fungal species also grow as single cells. Sexual and asexual reproduction of the fungi is commonly via spores, often produced on specialized structures or in fruiting bodies. Some species have lost the ability to form specialized reproductive structures, and they propagate solely by vegetative growth. Yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are examples of fungi. The fungi are a monophyletic group that is phylogenetically clearly distinct from the morphologically similar slime molds (myxomycetes) and water molds (oomycetes).
The fungi are more closely related to animals than plants, yet the discipline of biology devoted to the study of fungi, known as mycology, often falls under a branch of botany.
There are a few main groups that taxonomists divide the fungi. For the purposes of this treatment, we've kept it simple by starting with the four most common types. The Basidiomycota contains the fungi that look most like the fungi people have seen with a nice stalk and cap. The Ascomycota are sac fungi that are typified by morels and sac fungi. The Zygomycota are all pretty small. Bread molds are good examples. The Chytridomycota are the final group, made famous by the devestation they're inflicting on the amphibians of the neotropics. The diagram below should give you a simple way to visualize these groups.
If you're new to identifying mushrooms, the first thing you'll probably think is, "boy, they all look the same!" Truth is, we've all been there, but that's only because our culture has not trained us to know the difference. We can tell a head of cabbage apart from some romaine lettuce pretty easily. We can even tell different types of apples apart. Mushrooms are extremely diverse, and (with practice) anyone can identify the mushrooms in their area. This might be a good time to note, however, that many mushrooms are poisonous. For those wishing to identify mushrooms for edible purposes, we highly recommend starting your mushrooming by going on mushroom forays (that's what they call mushroom hunts) with local experts before ever attempting to eat a wild mushroom. Yet, with that said, we don't want to discourage anyone from the amazing world of mushrooms. There really is nothing more fun than finding a mushroom in the wild and learning to identify it. The following is a very basic overview of the names given to the parts of a typical mushroom.
Here at Untamed Science, we feel that video is one of the easiest ways for you to learn a topic. In this case, we've created a few videos on mushrooms that we're excited to share with you.
We produced this video for Pearson's High School biology textbooks. We thought the treatment was pretty fun, and it definitely gives a good introduction to the kingdom Fungi.
This particular ecofact was produced by yours truly (Rob Nelson). I used to produce shows via The Wild Classroom. Today, it's all just Untamed Science. This was one of the first pieces we ever did.
In this short video, produced by our producer Jaime Jacobsen, we're learning a bit about mushroom identification. The video was originally produced for a middle school audience and will be published in Pearson Publishing's middle grades textbooks. Many thanks to Tradd and Olga from Mushroom Mountain for helping with this video.
Mushrooms have been a constant source of mystery for us. The way they emerge out of what seems like nothing in the ground has always made us want to learn more. Recently, we happened upon the treasure trove of mushroom resource books. The first two are by Paul Stamets and the last one by David Arora. Between these three books you should have everything you need to get interested in mushrooms. Plus, if you so choose, you'll be able to grow your own.
This video is a great overview of some of the main messages Paul gives on the benefits of mushrooms.