Monday, January 31, 2011

Site Redesign

Yes, I've been quite active in the blogosphere recently, and have just redesigned this site. Prominently featured are: a new background featuring some nice LBMs I found here in a lawn, and a new masthead featuring an anomalous mushroom, Phylloporus rhodoxanthus, the gilled bolete. Boletes typically have tubes, but the trait of having a lamellate hymenium (a.k.a. gills) is polyphyletic, which means that not all things with the trait have it by common descent. A familiar animal example of this would be wings, a character shared by birds, bats, and insects; the three groups are only distantly related, with lots of unwinged taxa in between.

Gills are found in the traditional Agaricoid fungi (with some losses of gills), and in many (but not all) Russuloid fungi (which look like agarics to most folks). Gills are also found in some polypores, like Lenzites and Daedalea (the latter really being an in-betweener), as well as the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune (below). Interestingly, none of the Ascomycota have gills.

Back to P. rhodoxanthus, you can see in the picture that the gills are a bit different, in that they have little stubs, like they want to fork or form tubes, but then they don't. Paxillus spp., also in the order Boletales, tend to have forked gills too.

Anyway, I hope you, dear reader, appreciate the new look. Hopefully I'll keep posting new stuff with some frequency. We've been getting a lot of rain here, so perhaps if it warms up a bit I'll be posting some of my discoveries along the way.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Just found this site via...

Mycorant. In the class that I'm currently teaching, Organismal Biology, one of the assignments that students are engaged in is the watching of nature videos and reporting on them. In nature videos, there is a strong bias towards 1. Mammals, and 2. Animals in general. There are a handful of good plant videos, but the number of good fungi videos I've seen is scant, to be judicious.

However, thanks to Mycorant, I've found Fungal Visions, a blog that has some nice videos of fungal biology. One of the first ones I watched, showing the divisions of the Fungi, is quite dated, though. So, perhaps if I get another lifetime, I'll dedicate myself to making films about fungi. I doubt that's going to happen, though.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Organism of the Day: Armillaria mellea

Yesterday I presented the Organism of the Day to my Biology class, and selected one of my favorites, Armillaria mellea. First, the complete classification.

Armillaria mellea (Vahl.:Fr.) Kummer (common names include: oak root fungus, honey mushroom)


Physalacriaceae (it was Tricholomataceae when I first learned it, but we all knew Tricholomataceae was a dumping ground for white-spored mushrooms)






Why should you care about A. mellea? Well, first it's an important plant pathogen, infecting hundreds of plant species, though mostly noticeable on woody species. Even though it's called oak root fungus, this is clearly a misnomer. It can also survive on dead plant material, as a saprobe.

It does produce mushrooms, being an agaric, but these are analogous to the apples on the tree, they are just a way of getting around. The mushrooms are fairly typical, with a pileus, a stipe, and a partial veil. Like most common mushrooms, the fertile part or hymenium takes the form of gills, or lamellae. The spores produced rain down and you can see deposits of them on the caps of some of the other mushrooms. Notice that it’s white, the color is an important diagnostic feature as well.It also produces structures called mycelial fans, under the bark of trees that it’s infecting, which is an important structure for feeding the organism.

But another interesting feature is the bioluminescence. This is present in many species of mushrooms (at least 70 species) and other organisms, many animals. The glow of Armillaria mellea has been observed since ancient times, and has the common name foxfire. There’s a town called Foxfire in North Carolina, and Mark Twain in mentions the boys using it in Huckleberry Finn. In some fungi, the mushrooms glow, but in Armillaria, it’s the mycelium and rhizomorphs.

Perhaps the neatest thing about Armillaria is this item. In 1992 it was reported that a single clone of Armillaria gallica was estimated to cover an area of 15 hectares (or about 37 acres), weigh over 10,000 kg (about as much as a blue whale), and be over 1500 years old. And you would have never known it, because it was underground and under bark, and much of it was made up of microscopic threads.

The researchs who discovered the humongous fungus baited for the fungus using poplar sticks, buried under ground, and tested for somatic incompatibility. Basically, if the fungal isolates were genetically distinct, they would repel each other. If they fused, the isolates recognized each other part of the same whole. Comparison of genes further demonstrated that it’s all one big thing. The folks in Michigan are proud of their humongous fungus and celebrate it every year.

But the story doesn’t end there. Later that year, another humungous fungus was claimed near Glenwood, Washington, that was supposed to be 600 hectares, 40 times bigger than the one in the upper peninsula. Though the evidence wasn’t as strong, the question arose. How big can these things get?

In 2003, a paper was published demonstrating an even larger Armillaria clone, in the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. This one was found to be even bigger than the purported thallus of Glenwood, 965 hectares, or 2385 acres. Though the estimates of the age are variable, it's thought that the Oregon Armillaria clone (actually A. ostoyae) could be as old as 8650 years. Can you imagine? An individual organism that might predate the Egyptian pyramids?

Does this seem like deja vu? I just realized that I blogged about this before, and not too long ago. But not as a prestigious Organism of the Day. That part is new. I still think it's one of the coolest stories in mycology. I also think Tom Volk tells the story better, but there it is.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Another fungi in Alabama story

While waiting for the white nose fungus to come flying in from the north, Alabama has been hit by another newsworthy fungus in the south. This one has been around for a while, but is approaching epidemic proportions in the marshes near Mobile and adjacent Mississippi. Claviceps purpurea, which is better known as ergot, affects many grasses, and was the original source of lysergic acid, a precursor of LSD. Now it is hitting Spartina alternifolia, one of the two main grass species in the area.

The fungus doesn't kill the plants though it does render them sterile, which in an evolutionary context is just as bad. Many questions remain unanswered. For example, was the Gulf oil spill an important predisposing factor? Also, is it from the G3 group, considered a different variety of the fungus, which seems to affect Spartina more frequently than other grasses? Probably so, which would be good seeing as the G1 and G2 groups affect some of our economically important grasses. Clearly, this story is developing, and it is far to early to consider what the impact is or may become.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bear eating fly agaric

Came across this video depicting a bear cub eating fly agaric and having a little trip. I do not endorse the feeding of fly agaric to animals, but this is interesting and I haven't posted in a while, so there it is.