Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Saharan lichens, fungi and the "Maltese mushroom"

Saharan lichens

I saw a few mushrooms as well, but these were pretty sparse.

Podaxis sp. (aff. pistillaris)
immature Podaxis sp. near camp

One of the most interesting finds was a parasitic flower, Cynomorium coccineum. The inflorescences look very much like mushrooms from afar, and when I first saw a cluster by the side of the road I asked the Zbyzsek to stop the car. I wasn't the first to think so-- the common English name is the "Maltese mushroom." 
Cynomorium coccineum in a dry river valley. 
The plants have a global distribution and are valued as a food resource and panacea across many different culture groups. For a better look at their peculiar history, read this article.

The base of this flowering structure was attached to a pale thin taproot, which I followed to the succulent shrub (Atriplex sp.?) at right. Unfortunately, the taproot was somewhat brittle and broke during excavation. These plants don't photosynthesize, and instead harvest nutrients from the host shrub, a lifestyle known as holoparasitism. 

These were found in nearly all shrubby desert areas we visited.
The phylogeny of these plants is uncertain, largely because some of the genetic markers commonly used to analyze the the relationships between different taxa affiliate with conflicting lineages--one suggests Cynomorium is more closely related to the Saxifragales, while another suggests Sapinales. This may be because parasitic plants are so closely associated with their hosts they can undergo horizontal gene transfer (Barkman et al. 2007), though Cynomorium isn't known to currently associate with members of either lineage. Strange plants indeed.

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 in the manner described above.

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.
Thick layer of quartz geodes in an eroded cliff bordering a riverbed. Much of the cliff was composed of flint embedded in chalk.
Geode from above site

Fresh(ish) fox skull

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]