Fungus is often an under-appreciated life form, especially when we’re brought up to discourage it in the home. Although totally justified (nobody wants mouldy food in the fridge), the fungi that are found outdoors in our gardens and parks are beautiful and, not to mention, ecologically essential. Once considered a part of the plant kingdom due to their sessile lifestyle, molecular evidence now suggests that fungi are actually more closely related to animals. However, the biology of fungi is so unique that they have their own taxonomic kingdom: the Kingdom of Fungi. A recent Wild Melbourne trip to Lorne gave the crew and myself a great opportunity to spy some of these unusual organisms that can be common in both suburban backyards and along the dewy forest floor.
Aiming to check out areas of the Great Otway National Park, we headed towards the temperate forest habitat behind Lorne: a relatively short trip from the Melbourne CBD down the beautiful Great Ocean Road. Exhibiting high moisture levels as well as large amounts of falling leaf litter and organic matter, this forest habitat is perfect for fungal growth, providing a nutritious substrate in which various species can not only survive, but also significantly flourish.
As one of the main decomposers of our biosphere, fungi play a crucial role in their ecosystem. This means that they break down complex nutrients in their environment into simpler ones, with different species feeding on a variety of beneficial sources. Most of the fungi that we found around Lorne were saprophytes: fungi that feed on leaf litter, dead animals and animal dung. Saprophytes are excellent decomposers, recycling nutrients back into the soil so that plants can take them up again for their own use.
One species that we found was Mycena atrata: a fungus possessing a slender stem and showing brown colouration. The cap of this species can also grow to 25 mm across and is usually a greyish-brown colour. This mushroom grows in clusters and is generally found on decaying eucalypt logs throughout the forest habitat. Podoscypha petalodes was another species spotted amongst the undergrowth. Also known as Wineglass Fungi, this organism forms clusters of rosettes up to 40 mm across and is often found on decaying stumps or fallen logs.
Another species that we saw several times was Mycena toyerlaricola: a fungus that is often found in Myrtle Beech forests and possesses a reddish cap that may grow to 15 mm. This species also exhibits a slender stem, this time brownish-red in colour. We spied it living amongst a variety of mosses on several fallen logs, and also amongst leaf litter on the forest floor.
Fungi, although inconspicuous and unassuming, are undeniably a huge part of our biosphere. So next time you’re out and about, keep your eyes peeled for any of the various species of fungi that might be hiding amongst the moss and leaves of your local park, nature strip, or even backyard – their humble and unusual beauty is something not to be missed.