I’m familiar with twitchers dashing around the world looking for rare bird species but I’ve learned that the esoteric world of fungi has its own globe-trotting fanatics.
Fungi fans across the world will go weak at the knees at the mention of anemone stinkhorn and flame fungus, to say nothing of a species of fungi known as dead man’s finger. Tasmania, it seems, is a paradise for fungus freaks, or mycologists as they are officially known.
I learned some fascinating facts about not just fungi but the people devoted to them when I joined a walked billed as a “fungi foray” organised by the Hobart City Council’s Bush Adventures program.
Appropriately it was timed to coincide with the peak fungi month of May, when woods are wet and the chill of winter has yet to set in.
A problem with many bird-watchers – myself included – is that their interest in the natural world tends to focus on only one area of study. With this in mind, after joining walks to study plants and trees earlier this year, I decided to give the world of fungi a whirl.
The walk led by fungi experts Genevieve Gates and David Ratkowsky was in one of my bird-watching haunts on Mt Wellington, the Fern Glade Trail just above Fern Tree. Equally, I was pleased to learn most species of fungi inhabit one my favourite ecosystems in the bird world – that of damp and moist places, usually under the towering canopies of eucalypts in wet forests. This is the home of not only multi-coloured toadstools and mushrooms, but other treasures of the forest like pink robins, Tasmanian scrubwrens and Bassian thrushes.
In such locations the fungi are not only vital to the process of recycling dead forest, they also provide food for insects on which insect-eating bird species and mammals depend.
The early naturalists tended to concentrate on fauna and flora, and the world of fungi came very late to scientific attention towards the end of the 17th century.
Before this fungi had inhabited a world of mystique and mystery, even witchcraft. Here was a “plant” – often dangerous – without leaves or a root system that seemed to suddenly appear as if by magic. In ancient circles the fungus was known as the “devil’s plant”.
It was later discovered that fungi did not belong in the kingdom of plants, they had a kingdom all their own. Unlike plants, fungi do not possess chlorophyll, therefore they do not need sunlight to grow. They do not produce their own food so are scavengers or parasites absorbing their nourishment from where they grow. When the fruit body (that part which we see), is mature, fungus spores are released and dispersed by many sources – including wind, water and animals – providing the fungus with a way to spread and form new colonies.
The fruit body, the toadstool or mushroom we see is only a small portion of around 25 per cent of the fungus. The unseen, or main part, is made up of microscopic threads which weave their way through the soil or wood which provides their nourishment.
Like most of Tasmania’s wildlife, fungi are under threat, principally from land clearance and modern forestry techniques that do not leave behind residues of leaves, branches and bark in which fungi proliferates. A 400-year-old giant eucalypt that dies naturally in the forest might take another 400 years to be turned into soil by its attendant fungus.
Dr Gates – who is writing a book on the fungi of Mt Wellington – said many fungi species had yet to be formally identified. Like the environment in which they play a vital part, there is still mushroom for study.