Mycologists catalog mushrooms in Rocky Mountain National Park
August 25, 2008
Although much of the discussion was about “gills,” “pores,” and “teeth,” we were about as far from an ocean environment as one could get.
Up roughly 8,700 feet in the middle of the woods in Rocky Mountain National Park, Professor Marc Donsky bounded back-and-forth among researchers with woven baskets calling out obscure names like “That’s an amanita” or “That’s a suillus I’ve never seen before.”
We were mushroom hunting Saturday ” a rare chance to collect the earthiest of forest fruits.
Rocky Mountain National Park was hosting its first ever “Mycoblitz,” an intense survey of fungal species dwelling in the wilderness. It did so in partnership with the Colorado Mycology (study of fungi) Society.
Donsky is the president-elect of that Society, a professor of biochemistry who grew up in Colorado and became interested in mycology’s “wonderful forms of life” partly from the influence of his French mother whose cooking often included tasty chanterelles, he said.
The scientist, filled with wiry enthusiasm and academic curiosity, treats a unique mushroom discovery like a prize. He scours the forest wearing a barmah-type hat, carrying packs of equipment and a large sturdy basket with a colorful Peruvian cloth belt for a strap.
It was fitting that he found some paxillus gigantea (or the clitosybe gigantea, there was some indecision) ” which to the lay person looked like the mother lode of mushroom finds because of their large cone-shaped base and Alice-and-Wonderland dimensions ” and when he did, Donsky happily placed them in his basket just before lunchtime. This was the sort of “macro” mushroom he’d hoped the group would come across, he said.
Donsky, four researchers from the University of Colorado, Denver, two volunteers and geo-scientist/geology intern with Rocky Mountain National Park Ansel Bubel made up the Park’s west-side crew for the blitz, with roughly 80 other fungi-searching scientists on the eastern side.
When researchers spotted a mushroom, they’d busily fill out an information card on its whereabouts. Was it found in moss, wood or bare soil? What sort of trees were nearby? How many like it were around? What does it smell like?
Addressing descriptions of smell, researchers provided such obscure answers as “anise and cream.”
A photo was promptly taken with a photo tag number, and the mushroom was extracted and placed in a wax bag for further scientific study. According to Bubel, the fungi may become members of an herbarium at Park headquarters.
The blitz was expected to create a snapshot of the microfungi ecology of the forests. Mushrooms are the primary recyclers of wood and other lignified plant material and are crucial components in soil.
Mushroom observers can only notice them for about a month out of the year, mostly in late July to August, in concert with summer’s monsoon season in the high country.
The body of mushrooms, called mycellium, provide nutrients to trees in exchange for a type of sugar.
The part of the mushroom seen above ground is the fruit of the mushroom, and “taking it from the forest is like taking an apple from a tree,” Bubel said. It’s the single-cell layer of mycellium underneath the surface that continues mushrooms’ life cycles.
Some of the mushrooms we found in the morning were considered edible, such as the Puff Balls and Hawk’s Wing (the cap of which surprisingly does have the texture of a hawk’s wing. It’s also called the Shingled Hedge Hog).
Out of 700,000 to 1 million varieties of mushrooms in the world, the Rocky Mountain Region has about 200 to 300 species of identifiable mushrooms, Donsky said. Where mushrooms call home is mostly due to humidity and temperature, and some species found above 8,000 feet can also be found at sea level.
Examining mushrooms through a magnified lens shows their unique characteristics. Looking underneath a mushroom’s “umbrella” reveals the varied and fantastic engineering of a mushroom. Some look like they’re made of a million tube-like structures, others look like a landscape of sharp teeth.
“Be tactile, use your senses” Donsky chanted to the foragers.
Collecting mushrooms for science, he said, is a much different animal than simply mushroom hunting. Each mushroom takes careful examination and recording.
By the end of the morning’s session, appropriate fungi weather set in with a darkening sky, a small drizzle and a lingering storm to the east.
Already, the hunters had gained evidence of a wide variety the earthy organisms only within a couple hundred feet.
Donsky was not surprised of the wealth of mushrooms this year, he said, only adding, “I’d had hoped it would be like this.”
” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.