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Posts Tagged ‘fungus’

Love for Fungi

As a kid, I was kind of creeped out by fungi, but in recent years I’ve found myself fascinated by their unexpected beauty and mystery. And I’ve taken lots of pictures, three of which are here.

In an article at the New York Times, Ferris Jabr, describing the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, talks to forest ecologist Suzanne Simard about what trees are communicating with one another through their subterranean networks of fungi.

“By the time she was in grad school at Oregon State University, [Simard] understood that commercial clearcutting had largely superseded the sustainable logging practices of the past. Loggers were replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations, evenly spaced in upturned soil stripped of most underbrush. Without any competitors, the thinking went, the newly planted trees would thrive. Instead, they were frequently more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in old-growth forests.

“In particular, Simard noticed that up to 10 percent of newly planted Douglas fir were likely to get sick and die whenever nearby aspen, paper birch and cottonwood were removed. The reasons were unclear. The planted saplings had plenty of space, and they received more light and water than trees in old, dense forests. So why were they so frail?

“Simard suspected that the answer was buried in the soil. Underground, trees and fungi form partnerships known as mycorrhizas: Threadlike fungi envelop and fuse with tree roots, helping them extract water and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange for some of the carbon-rich sugars the trees make through photosynthesis.

“Research had demonstrated that mycorrhizas also connected plants to one another and that these associations might be ecologically important, but most scientists had studied them in greenhouses and laboratories, not in the wild. For her doctoral thesis, Simard decided to investigate fungal links between Douglas fir and paper birch in the forests of British Columbia. …

‘The old foresters were like, Why don’t you just study growth and yield?’ Simard told me. ‘I was more interested in how these plants interact. They thought it was all very girlie.’

“Now a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, Simard, who is 60, has studied webs of root and fungi in the Arctic, temperate and coastal forests of North America for nearly three decades. Her initial inklings about the importance of mycorrhizal networks were prescient, inspiring whole new lines of research that ultimately overturned longstanding misconceptions about forest ecosystems. By analyzing the DNA in root tips and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard has discovered that fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits.

“Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest. Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger. Seedlings severed from the forest’s underground lifelines are much more likely to die than their networked counterparts. And if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.

“Although Simard’s peers were skeptical and sometimes even disparaging of her early work, they now generally regard her as one of the most rigorous and innovative scientists studying plant communication and behavior. … In May, Knopf will publish [her] book, Finding the Mother Tree, a vivid and compelling memoir of her lifelong quest to prove that ‘the forest was more than just a collection of trees.’ …

“Before Simard and other ecologists revealed the extent and significance of mycorrhizal networks, foresters typically regarded trees as solitary individuals that competed for space and resources and were otherwise indifferent to one another. Simard and her peers have demonstrated that this framework is far too simplistic. An old-growth forest is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society. There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness. The trees, understory plants, fungi and microbes in a forest are so thoroughly connected, communicative and codependent that some scientists have described them as superorganisms. …

“Together, these symbiotic partners knit Earth’s soils into nearly contiguous living networks of unfathomable scale and complexity. ‘I was taught that you have a tree, and it’s out there to find its own way,’ Simard told me. ‘It’s not how a forest works, though.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

Hat tip: Hannah.

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Sunflowers are wonderful on gray days or sunny, but they seem happiest on sunny days. Gardeners in the local community garden plant a lot of sunflowers, probably to keep the birds busy and away from other plants.

I took the second sunflower photo on a gray day when I happened to notice how prettily this lady’s hair was arranged around her face. I haven’t been to my hairdresser for many moons. Although I’m concerned for her and her coworkers, who need to make a living, I’m still too afraid to go in buildings where coronavirus droplets might linger in the air. I’m hoping my hair ends up with a sunflower naturalness — but a scarecrow look seems more likely.

Going deeper into the garden to capture the first photo, I noticed an arbor I hadn’t seen before. All Morning Glories!

In other walks around town, I was drawn to a stark tree skeleton in a quiet swamp and Purple Loosestrife crowding around a footbridge. The Balloon Flower (or Japanese Bellflower) I suddenly started noticing in local yards after studying a painting on a calendar that a friend in Hokkaido sends me every year. I had never zeroed in on those balloon-like buds before.

Next are yellow roses, a bizarre fungus, and good advice on a small, wise stone. The old seafood sign was outside an antique shop. I’m also sharing a picture of produce that the grocery store delivered the other day, and a blueberry-raspberry cake I made for our very quiet 50th anniversary.

The sheep were sent to me by Stuga40, who sees many wonders on her walks in Stockholm, a city that knows the value of nature.

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Hello, summer clouds — so beautiful! I was discussing them with my friend Nancy yesterday, and she told me she had signed up some years ago with the UK-based Cloud Appreciation Society, which sends her a daily cloud picture and a few words on cloud science or cloud mythology. Consider joining if you need a daily pick-me-up in quarantine.

The next two pictures reference my growing appreciation of fungus. Then comes a bright red intruder in the forest, reminding me of the lamppost that Lucy found in the wintry Narnia woodland after emerging from the wardrobe.

The doorknob in the tree made Suzanne think of a handy panic button (I think she is tired of lockdown), but I’m pretty sure it leads into a home. Probably not a hobbit home, since they prefer burrows underground. Maybe it belongs to Owl.

I love the little red squirrels that have started to appear in our region. John thinks global warming may be bringing them up from the south. Clue me in if you know.

The decidedly unscenic bug repellent had been abandoned along the bike trail. I didn’t touch it as I am a Covid germaphobe, but I got a laugh: I’d been slapping mosquitoes for the whole walk.

In the town of Lincoln, yarn stretched between trees caught my eye. A bit further along the conservation trail, there was a helpful explanation.

The tippy old wooden building is next to Orchard House, a childhood home of author Louisa May Alcott. The building was named the School of Philosophy by Louisa’s hippy father Bronson and continues to offer presentations and lectures in normal times. (I put up my photo of Louisa in her coronavirus face mask for yesterday’s post.)

Speaking of adapting to the times, you will note that the Colonial Inn (founded in 1716) has marked off six-foot segments on its brick walk for safe distancing.

The Art Deco frieze on the old Emerson school building welcomes visitors to what is now the Umbrella Center for the Arts.

I don’t think I need to explain the last three. Sometimes readers give me their reactions to one or two pics. I do get a kick out of that — should you feel moved to comment.

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Except for the cannon balls at the Civil War monument in New York City, these photos are all from my walks in Massachusetts.

The town of Concord recognizes the International Day of Peace every year by putting up the flags of all members of the United Nations. This year I sent photos of my relatives’ countries of origin to them — Sweden and Egypt.

The Old Manse, run by the Trustees of Reservations, is decorating for fall. Its most famous tenants were author Nathaniel and artist Sophia Hawthorne. Tour guides like to show visitors where the couple carved window messages with her diamond ring.

The injured Blackpoll warbler had a tough fall migration and didn’t make it through the night. I did learn from Kim that one should put an injured bird in a “small, warm, dark box for night. If living in the morning, drip a little sugar water into mouth and release.” Something to keep in mind.

The pumpkin has an important quotation from former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black about a free press. My neighbor puts 24 small pumpkins on her fence posts every year near Halloween and inscribes something on each. This year the words are from Supreme Court justices, the 19th Amendment (giving women the vote), Massachusetts justice Margaret Marshall (making the state the first to allow gay marriage), and the like.

I wind up with another neighbor’s new tree house and a couple fungi photos. There seems to be a huge array of fungi in town this year, some of them very peculiar looking. We also have a lot of mosquitoes. Too much rain?

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As spring belatedly decided to show up in our neck of the woods, a Hollywood movie crew turned the town into a Christmas set, building a crèche in front of a picturesque church, decorating store windows with candy canes, snowmen, and plastic poinsettias — and spreading fake snow on lawns that had barely recovered from an April 1 blizzard. It was a little weird. One friend said she looked up from washing dishes at her kitchen window and saw what looked like a gigantic spaceship hovering over the trees. It was the boom for the cameraman.

In more seasonal news, spring flowers began to poke out. Woodland walks were taken. Mushrooms and lichens were admired.

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Something reader KerryCan said in a comment one day got me thinking that I’d like to see if I could get a photo of Providence that could make a part of the city pass for rural. At first, I found only bland vacant lots left over from the rerouting of route 195. Then I went to Blackstone Park, where a treehugger tree and an ersatz teepee caught my eye.

The soccer-playing kid is in a suburban-looking area on the East Side, and the glowing tunnel is right downtown.

I thought the sandbox looked lonely.

In Massachusetts, I went looking for skunk cabbage and jack-in-the-pulpit plants, but it was too early. Not spring yet. I did hear peepers. And I saw gracefully rotting tree stumps, a bird on a mailbox, and a wonderful rainbow.

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Doubtless you know about fairy circles, also called fairy rings. According to Wikipedia, they’re a “naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. The rings may grow to over 10 metres (33 ft) in diameter, and they become stable over time as the fungus grows and seeks food underground.

“They are found mainly in forested areas, but also appear in grasslands or rangelands. Fairy rings are detectable by sporocarps in rings or arcs, as well as by a necrotic zone (dead grass), or a ring of dark green grass. If these manifestations are visible a fairy fungus mycelium is likely to be present in the ring or arc underneath.

“Fairy rings also occupy a prominent place in European folklore as the location of gateways into elfin kingdoms.”

But in Africa, there is a different kind of fairy circle that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with mushrooms.

Did you catch the article by Sindya Bhanoo in the NY Times?

“The grasslands of Namibia — and to a lesser extent its neighbors Angola and South Africa — are speckled with millions of mysterious bare spots called ‘fairy circles,’ their origins unknown.

“Now, a study based on several years of satellite images describes the circles’ life span as they appear, transform over decades, and then eventually disappear.

“Writing in the journal PLoS One, Walter R. Tschinkel, the study’s author and a biologist at Florida State University, reports that the circles can last 24 to 75 years.

“The circles, which range from about 6 to 30 feet in diameter, begin as bare spots on an otherwise continuous grass carpet; after a few years, taller grass starts to grow around the circle’s perimeter.”

The reader is left with the question, Are these circles gateways to elfin kingdoms? What kind of elves are in Namibia?

I don’t understand why scientists don’t investigate matters like that.

Update July 13, 2012: Asakiyume has been tracking down stories about African fairy circles. Read this.

Update March 30, 2013: NY Times has fingered a particular species of sand termites, Psammotermes alloceru. Read this.

Photograph: Walter R. Tschinkel

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I got an intriguing tip from a WordPress blog, The Yoga Hub, about Yale students who found a microbe that eats plastic. The discovery spells hope for breaking down plastics in landfills.

Bruce Fellman writes in the Yale Alumni Magazine, “A group of student bioprospectors from Yale has struck environmental gold in the jungles of Ecuador. The students, through the annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory course taught by molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel, have discovered a fungus with a powerful appetite for polyurethane. That common plastic often winds up buried in landfills, where it can remain, largely unaltered, for generations.

“In the September issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, Jonathan Russell ’11 and his colleagues describe how they isolated, from plants collected during the class’s two-week spring trips, a fungus they identified as Pestalotiopsis microspora—and then discovered its unique polyurethane-digesting talents.” More here.

Sounds promising, but I can’t help worrying about the possible unintended consequences of introducing a microbe to places where it is not native. Maybe cutting back on plastics is still the way to go.

Photograph: Yale University

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