Saturday, February 28, 2015

Detour to Morocco [Western Sahara]

Two days after I landed in London, a friend I met in South Africa messaged me to ask if I was able to join a field trip to Morocco to catch rodents in the Sahara. So of course, 24 hours later I was in Porto meeting the other members of the expedition while we packed the car for the drive from Portugal to Morocco. We had dinner in Porto, left at 2 am, had breakfast in Spain, took a ferry, and had lunch in Morocco. 

Basic daily routine: pack up camp, drive a few hours to a new trapping site, set up camp nearby, relax for a few hours until sunset, drive slowly through the desert with headlamps stuck out the windows and nets at the ready to spot and chase nocturnal rodents. 

We caught lesser Egyptian jerboas (Jaculus jaculus) by chasing them with butterfly nets and headlamps at night.

Book of North African mammals in hand, Zbyzsek asks (sort of, there's a language barrier) local camel/goat-herding nomads about rodents of the area.

Sometimes this develops into an invitation for afternoon tea. The tea is very sweet green tea, and there is some ceremony to the pouring.
Herds of camels graze on the winter greenery.
Kris sets traps to catch gerbils and attempts to keep dust out of his eyes/ears/nose/mouth. A relentless wind that drove dust into everything started mid-trip, and I didn't take many pictures during these dust storms to spare my camera the damage.
Zbyszek and Filipa return from setting traps during the 4-day dust storm.

There were some very spectacular landscapes.

Sometimes the dunes would creep over the roads and we had to go offroad to avoid getting stuck in the sand.

Filipa and Kris hard at work in the office.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A few of the many,many fungi isolated from bark beetles (genus Ips)

Bark beetles (and their mites) eat fungal mycelium and spores, and carry spores between host trees. Here are just a few of the fungal cultures isolated some one species of bark beetle--the diversity and abundance of fungi even in this small niche is astounding. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Forestry and Biotechnology Institute, University of Pretoria (South Africa)

FABI year-end gala. Riikka on the left, my lab-mate Vou in the middle.
While I was at the International Mycological Congress in Bangkok this past August, I met Riikka, a Finnish post-doctoral researcher working in FABI at the University of Pretoria. After establishing that she needed someone to work on a project and I needed a project to work on in South Africa, we made plans to rendezvous in Pretoria. I arrived October 28 and have been working (when the PCR goblins permit) in the taxonomy/population genetics of Ophiostoma, a group of microfungi spread by particular species of beetles.

Ophiostoma piceae plated a couple weeks ago. The asexual spores are in the drops at the top of the dark stalks. This characteristic facilitates spore dispersal by wood-infesting beetles. 

The duo of the beetles and fungi is mostly known for causing Dutch elm disease and pine deaths. The most immediately notable feature of the group is the stalked spore drops held aloft to rub onto a passing beetle and allow spores to be carried to the next tree. This group (and morphologically similar Ceratocystis) has a history of confusing and often-reorganized taxonomy due (in a simplified way) to morphological characteristics that don't reflect evolutionary relationships and traditionally used molecular markers that fail to be informative in this group. Researchers in FABI have done quite a bit of work on this group, and it's been a pleasure to enter the project and observe the was this African hub of mycological research operates.

Talking to people involved in forestry/FABI. Eyes closed, naturally.
It has been a relief to be able to settle somewhere for longer than a week or two and fully unpack and engage in a single project. Coming from Southeast Asia, it has been odd to transition from somewhere I'm obviously foreign and it is immediately clear I don't fit the culture, to somewhere I look like I could have grown up there and am accordingly assumed to be culturally competent. FABI itself is very international, but outside I note social tensions and systems of assumptions that I don't quite understand. 

I also went on a safari in Pilanesburg National Park and Game Reserve. The diversity and abundance of animals in the reserve was amazing (though artificially created). We saw rhinos, elephants, zebra, lions, and many other animals I've only seen pictures of. Seeing a rhino up close felt like almost seeing a dinosaur.

Tons of zebra and impala.

Most of the animals didn't mind the cars, so we could get pretty close when they walked near the road.

Baby jackal with top-notch eye contact

A racket-tailed roller (Coracias spatulatus). It was very colorful though that isn't clear in this picture.

Giraffe chewing on some bones for calcium

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Jungle ads

Over a month ago, I was on a short trek in the jungle heading back to Juara beach on Tioman Island after spending the afternoon at a waterfall in the jungle. As I walked, I spotted a polypore that had been broken off a log and placed on top of it, perhaps by a passing group of hikers. Some of the shelf mushrooms that have very fine pale pore surfaces can be used to write messages. The most famous example of a fungus with this characteristic is Ganoderma applanatum, known as the Artist's Conk. I'm not sure what species this example is. 
Of note: many of these larger, very solid polypores can continue to release spores for seasons, so please resist the urge to break them off the substrate.

I scribbled a message on the underside, leaving this diminutive billboard with one of the smallest possible audiences--hikers with good eyes taking the difficult route to a particular waterfall off the less-trafficked beach of a small Malaysian island in the South China Sea.

Today I received an email from a vertebrate/invertebrate researcher with this picture attached. Not exactly guerrilla marketing, but probably about as close as I'm going to get. 

(Thanks for the email, Reuben.)

[Currently working on a more detailed post about contract mushroom farming in developing countries, sorry for the delay in posting]

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fungus and conservation at Sakaerat biosphere reserve (Thailand)

[Hiking through a dry stream bed in Sakaerat during a collecting trip]

Fungi pose peculiar compounding problems in the context of conservation. These issues range from research/infrastructural problems like the unfinished and shifting foundation of taxonomy and lack of funding for biodiversity surveys and other non-commercializable research, to global problems like the rate of habitat loss and limited awareness of and interest in fungal diversity. 

[Throughout the post are images of fungi (and some insects) found at the Sakaerat Bioreserve in Thailand.]

[A harmless giant millipede climbs a large Chlorophyllum]

 The original fungal classification system was based on morphological features, but current DNA-based molecular research methods have caused enormous shifts in mycologists' understandings of what delimits a fungal species and how the taxonomic groups are related. Because most early studies of mycology were conducted in Europe, most species descriptions and identification resources unevenly emphasize European species, and molecular work has made it clear that in many cases applying the name of a similar-looking European species to a collection from another continent is misleading and inaccurate.

[Bright orange agarics- Cystoagaricus trisulphuratus, or Agaricus crocopeplus?]
 I've noticed in Thailand and Malaysia that what few macrofungal identification resources exist are incomplete and/or inaccurate. This highlights a critical problem in fungal conservation--if the fungi aren't identified correctly or have yet to be formally described, then establishing distribution and identifying which are threatened is virtually impossible. These problems only apply where there has been at least an attempt at surveying the fungal biodiversity, but because of lack of funding, interest, and mycologists, not enough surveying has been done. Some current surveys focus on using only molecular data/DNA sequencing, but the databases that the sequences are referenced against are incomplete/inaccurate and these surveys depend on resources that may not be available in developing countries (particularly in the case of "next generation"/high throughput sequencing). 

[Phillipsia domingensis - a very conspicuous and red disc fungus that was inaccurately given the name Sarcoscypha coccinea in multiple local ID books]

When so many fungi (including the microfungi unrepresented in this post) have not been documented or described, the simplest way to conserve fungi is to maintain undisturbed habitat and continue the efforts to document native fungi. Conservation is a dual act—ideally it includes practical efforts that directly affect the organisms of interest (habitat preservation, culture banking, inoculation of trees with endangered symbiotic species, etc) and it has to change land-use behaviors and educate local people, as human activity is generally accepted as the single largest threat to biodiversity.  
[An Austroboletus parasitized by a species of Hypomyces]

 Sakaerat is a UNESCO biosphere reserve consisting of a core area of uninhabited primary forest, with a surrounding buffer zone of restored forests containing a few villages. Briefly, the goal of biosphere reserves is to connect people to their environments with an emphasis on sustainability and conservation. This approach is pretty interesting-- it aims to both conserve habitat and maintain local peoples' stake in the area.  

[Auricularia spp. - appropriately called tree ear. Species of this genus are commonly eaten in Chinese cuisine]

While reserves by definition are protected from the major land-use changes and tree harvesting that threaten many forests, Sakaerat faces particular challenges because of Thai peoples' traditional use of forest products. In Thailand, people tend to see forests as "free grocery stores," but as human population has increased and forest cover has decreased, forest product use has largely become unsustainable. Resource overuse heavily disturbs habitats, and many sought-after organisms (notably slow-growing trees and slow-reproducing animals) aren't able to maintain reproductive populations. To encourage sustainable use, Sakaerat Environmental Research Station hosts researchers working on projects in the forest, and has very frequent 2-3 day science/nature camps for Thai highschool students that emphasize the value of biodiversity and aim to change the way the next generation of Thais see the forest.

[Tiny orange cup fungus]
Sakaerat management has largely been able to reduce poaching by relocating villages located in the core region of the forest and maintaining a force of rangers, but mushroom poaching is the notable exception. A week after a heavy rain, there are easily a dozen mushroom vendors with stalls within walking distance of the entrance to the park. There have been conflicting studies on whether or not mushroom harvesting damages fungal populations (as the mushroom is a fruiting body connected to a larger mycelial organism), but undoubtedly heavy harvesting leads to habitat disturbance.

[A shopping bag of mixed wild mushrooms bought from one of many roadside stands -- boletes, Russulas, Amanitas, and more]

The problem is that it is impossible to stop mushroom poaching unless the poachers have access to an alternative source of income. There simply aren't enough rangers to prevent poaching by force, and eliminating a major source of local villagers' income would be a public-relations/local politics disaster contrary to the idea of maintaining positive human-environment interaction and including local people in conservation. 

[This batch looks like mostly Amanita]

Though this observation is based on a single day's trip to the mushroom vendors and may not be representative, the mushroom poachers appeared to be village women in their forties/fifties who specialized in mushrooms. Frustratingly, my grasp of Thai is extremely limited and I couldn't ask them questions about their work, their concerns about the business, or the reliability of mushrooms as a source of income. 

[There was great diversity and abundance of tiny leaf-litter-decaying fungi]

Sakaerat started a project to educate local people on methods to grow mushrooms and provided spawn/materials in an attempt to turn the poachers into cultivators, but this initiative didn't become self-sustaining before funding fell through. In theory, mushroom cultivation could provide a more stable source of income while reducing mushroom poaching, but until the project is restarted (and there are plans to do so) it is impossible to guess how successful it would be--would consumers discriminate between wild and cultivated species, effectively making two separate markets? it would be a big lifestyle change, are the locals willing to fully adopt cultivation? 

[Tiny, unusual pileal shape, Marasmius sp.?]

Though mushroom poaching continues for the foreseeable future, the management of Sakaerat recognizes that conservation isn't a solution but a never-ending effort, continued with ongoing research support, constant education efforts, cooperation with local people, and creative solutions to unsustainable resource use.

[A tree-like form of one of the Xylariales]
This very brief post on fungal conservation problems and efforts was partly sourced from the 2008 publication Fungal Conservation: Issues and Solutions (Moore, Nauta, Evans, Rotheroe) and discussions with mycologists and Mister Taksin, the Sakaerat forest manager. 

Particular thanks to Taksin for welcoming me (unscheduled) to the research station and for managing the biosphere reserve in an exceptional way, and to Alexander for letting me actively join his fungal diversity work in Sakaerat.

[Sakaerat hosts great insect diversity as well]

[If you look above my leg, a bee with beautiful blue striping is about to land and drink my sweat.]

[Insects provide hosts for parasitic fungi, including Ophiocordyceps nutans]

[O. nutans fruiting body poking out of soil. The insect host of the fungus was slightly buried.]

[O. nutans victims are typically stinkbugs (wiki)]