The good, the bad, and the fungi

A colony of fungi found behind a palm frond. Photo by author

Every autumn and winter I head out to some of Victoria’s great national parks to search for fungi. What started as a relaxed stroll in the park has turned into quite the obsession. The vibrancy and form of some species of Australian fungi are truly incredible.

Fungi come in all shapes and sizes. From the common mushroom to the infamous Death Cap. From the spectacular coral fungi to the much sought-after truffle. Their form and structure changes depending on the location and temperature.

Much is known about these incredible organisms, but we’ve only scratched the surface on what these incredible organisms can do.

The Fungi

The mushroom is the most recognisable form of fungi but only 10% of fungi produce mushrooms. The main structure of fungi is an underground cobweb like network in the form of mycelium and hyphae. A species of Armillaria has a network of underground mycelium that spreads for 8.8 square kilometres.

The above ground form of fungi are mainly their fruiting bodies which release their spores. These can be carried by the wind or b y insects and animals which feed on the fungi.

Fungi feed on decaying wood and leaves (saprophytic), can be parasitic and cause the death of trees, and can be antagonistic and essentially fight other fungi and harmful pathogens.

One of my favourites, Mycena interrupta. Photo by author

The good

Fungi play a crucial, if not the most important, role in our ecosystem. Fungi degrade living and dead trees and the leaf litter on the forest floor. There would be no soil without fungi. 

In what is perhaps kingdom of Fungi’s greatest and most important function, is their ability to sequester carbon. Fungi decompose fallen trees and feed on their wood. The fungi retain the carbon and when they die, they form part of the soil structure which again retains the carbon within the soil.

Mycoremediation is only just beginning to be used. Fungi can breakdown and absorb oil spills, TNT, arsenic, and has even been used to clean up agent orange.

There are many species of fungi that provide health benefits. Fungi have been found to boost immune systems, support the nervous system, and help regulate blood pressure and cholesterol.

Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with most species of trees and plants. This species of fungi mine nutrients for the plant in return for sugars. The fungi increase the surface area of the roots which increases the available water that can be taken up by the tree.

The bad  

One of the great things about fungi is there aren’t many negatives.

There are many species of fungi, such as the infamous Death Cap and Amanita muscaria amongst others, that are poisonous and deadly when consumed.

A species of Amanita growing beneath Pine trees. Photo by author

The Poison Fire Coral, a Japanese species of fungi, was recently discovered in Queensland. This species of fungi when consumed can cause organ failure and brain damage.

The good kind of bad or the bad kind of good (depending on your perspective)

Species of fungi can degrade the internal wood tissue of trees which can sometimes kill the tree or even cause the tree to fail. These wood decaying fungi provide such an important role for our arboreal animals. The fungi degrade the inner dead tissue of the tree and create hollows for native fauna. There are over 300 native animal species that depend on hollows for nesting.

A decay causing fungal fruiting body. Photo by author

There are antagonistic species of fungi, called Trichoderma, which have been found to attack parasitic species of fungi, and can be used as a treatment for trees and plants effected by other diseases.

Cordyceps are a species of fungi right out of a horror movie. These fungi parasitise moths, beetles and other insects. The hosts become mummified and once they die the Cordyceps fruiting body is release from inside the host.

Next time you’re out for a stroll in autumn or winter, keep an eye out for these incredible organisms.