fungi

National Biodiversity Month

Across September, Australia celebrated the biodiversity that makes our island continent so unique. Here at Wild Melbourne, we don't think our Victorian species get enough coverage, so we decided to showcase just how diverse our state is! A species for every day of September, collected here in case you missed it. 

Thank you so much to all the photographers that contributed images to our National Biodiversity Month campaign. 

Fascinating Fungi

Have you noticed the fascinating array of mushrooms sprouting in backyards, urban parks and natural areas this Autumn and Winter? I don’t know whether we are having a particularly good year for fungi, or if it’s just a case of me becoming more interested in them, but I can’t stop spotting new and beautiful specimens everywhere I look.

They display an enormous diversity of forms, from large bracket fungi that cling to trees and logs, to delicate mushrooms measuring less than a centimetre, large, red-capped and white-spotted toadstools, and even (slightly disturbing-looking) jelly fungi.

Tremella fusiformis. Trentham.

Tremella fusiformis. Trentham.

Mycena sp. Sherbrooke Forest.

Mycena sp. Sherbrooke Forest.

Mushrooms are actually the fleshy, fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. The rest of the fungi may be present in the soil, litter or on wood year round, but the visible mushrooms appear quickly when the conditions are juuuust right. Mushroom growth is triggered by a combination of high humidity, substrate moisture and low light levels, although different groups exhibit different preferences.

Fungi are their very own Kingdom – separate from Plants, Animals, Protists and Bacteria – and include mushrooms, yeasts and moulds. They may appear similar to plants because they share some lifestyle characteristics, but structurally they are actually very different. While the cells of plants are strengthened with cellulose, the structural component of fungal cells is chitin. Interestingly, chitin is also the main component in insect and crustacean exoskeletons, butterfly wing-scales, the toothed tongues or radulae of molluscs and the beaks and internal shells of squid and octopus.

Crepidotus sp. or Hohenbuehelia sp. Trentham

Crepidotus sp. or Hohenbuehelia sp. Trentham

Unlike plants, fungi cannot generate their own food from the sun, and instead grow directly on their food source, which may be soil, leaf litter, rotting wood or a living host. While plants are the producers in an ecosystem, fungi are the decomposers – they are responsible for breaking down all that forest leaf litter.

Flavoparmelia sp. (right hand side) and unidentified Lichen spp. Trentham.

Flavoparmelia sp. (right hand side) and unidentified Lichen spp. Trentham.

Lichen, the encrusting stuff that coats trees, rocks and bricks and looks like a cross between moss and coral, is actually a symbiosis between a green alga (or sometimes a cyanobacteria) and a fungus. Because fungi cannot photosynthesize themselves, to draw energy from sunlight, this relationship allows them access to a greater range of nutrients.

Due to the incredible diversity of fungi, even within just those species that produce mushrooms, species identification is a job for the specialists, known as mycologists. This author attempted to classify the species she has photographed here for several days, but found it an almost impossible task. Therefore, many still remain unidentified. If you know mushrooms, or know someone who does, we would love to hear your identification suggestions.

If you would like to check out the fungi in your suburb, park or natural area, the best thing to do is to look for shaded areas that are protected from heavy foot traffic, and take - your - time. Many of the most interesting and attractive species are tiny and easily missed. Show us your fungi photos by using the hashtag #wildmelbourne on Instagram, tweeting us @wildmelbourne or posting them to our Facebook page.

All photos by Cathy Cavallo. 

Fungi Facts

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-->    With a leafy
look about it,  Podoscypha petalodes 
is one of many fungi that are usually found growing on old tree stumps or
fallen logs, as shown here.  





  

With a leafy look about it, Podoscypha petalodes is one of many fungi that are usually found growing on old tree stumps or fallen logs, as shown here.

 

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.

 

Found on decaying eucalypt logs, the species  Mycena atrata  grows in clusters and is of a greyish-brown colour.

Found on decaying eucalypt logs, the species Mycena atrata grows in clusters and is of a greyish-brown colour.

 

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.

 

Mycena toyerlaricola   is a fungus species that possesses a noticeably slender stem with an almost fairy-tale red cap.

Mycena toyerlaricola  is a fungus species that possesses a noticeably slender stem with an almost fairy-tale red cap.

 

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.