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

Some kind of bird. 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)]




Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Termite mushrooms!


Mushroom fruiting from a subterranean termite "fungus farm." Certain species of termites (there are at least half a dozen species in the Sakaerat biosphere reserve) feed leaf litter to a mass of fungal mycelium and harvest small lumps from the farm. The coevolutionary relationships and history of the termites+Termitomyces fungi are quite complex, but generally the two are in an obligate symbiosis--that is, the termite can't survive without the fungus, and the fungus can't survive without the termite.
While Termitomyces do have somewhat distinctive morphology, to absolutely identify them as such and to see which species of termite they are associating with the farm and stipe of the fruiting body are carefully excavated.

A different species of Termitomyces. For this species of termite, the farms are in multiple small chambers. Most of the time, the farm exists in this form. The formation of a mushroom is an irregular occurrence, and the presence of a mushroom may indicate that the farm wasn't harvested enough or the termite colony as died off.


Yet another species. These "farms" are larger. 

The small white lumps are almost ready to be harvested. 
The brown mushrooms on the left are a species of Termitomyces (called "Het Kohn") for sale at a roadside stand. They are sought-after culinary mushrooms and demand high prices, largely because people aren't as good as the termites at cultivating Termitomyces.


Many thanks to termite researcher Dr. Yamada, who took me out to see the local termites and Termitomyces. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recent activities in Thailand

After the 10th International Mycological Congress, I wandered around in Bangkok for a little under a week, figuring out what to do next. 


Through some professors at a local university, I joined a group of Thai Department of Agriculture researchers promoting the use of two biofertilizers to farmers in Khukhan province during an annual provincial agricultural exhibition (think Thai equivalent of a state fair). 
The biofertilizers: Rhizobium, which is a genus of soil bacteria that associate with the roots of legumes and fix nitrogen, inoculant for legume cultivation, and Azolla (a genus of small aquatic ferns that float on the surface of the water in rice paddies) that associate closely with Anabaena, a cyanobacteria capable of fixing nitrogen into a form that rice can access. The goal of these biofertilizers is to reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture. 

The fair had some interesting mushroom-related booths -- I had to guess based on the pictures because I was the only person there who wasn't Thai and few people spoke English. Fortunately I was already somewhat familiar with the common socio-agri-mycological topics of the area. One booth dedicated to conservation of wildlife had a large poster with pictures of various native and rare fungi, one was dedicated to mushroom cultivation (mostly Pleurotus and Ganoderma), and one was dedicated either to the collection of wild Amanita aff. caesarea in dipterocarp forests or the attempts to create dipterocarp+Amanita plantations to reduce poaching/increase production. I wasn't clear on that one because it was adjacent to some cultivation booths, but I know the species associates so closely with trees that it can't be cultivated on its own.

A notable takeaway from the fair, besides the cultural immersion, was simply that mushrooms, cultivated and wild, are included as a valid, recognized, and valued food resource in the local system. If I encountered evidence of that at a state fair in Arkansas, I would be shocked. 




Rubber trees at a farm in Khukhan province, Thailand (near Cambodia)

Irrigation canal

A marching band before the opening ceremony of the agricultural exposition/fair. A rather surreal sight coming from New Orleans. 

Thai traditional dancers and local government officials at the opening ceremony.

Close-up of a silk moth at a booth on sericulture.

Silk from start to finish.
On the trip back we went to two ancient structures -- one right on the border has a peculiar history because it was declared to be Cambodian though it was on Thai land, so we could only see it from a distance. Perhaps I'll visit it from the Cambodian direction later. This temple/palace was on the way back to Bangkok, but I can't recall the name.

Very beautiful, but my camera battery died so I couldn't get many photos.

After the fair, I returned to Bangkok for one night, then headed out to Sakaerat Environmental Research Station and Biosphere Reserve, a three hour drive from Bangkok. As soon as I arrived I thought it was a special place, particularly after spending a couple weeks in Bangkok. 


I rudely interrupted these stunning insects during our first foray into the forest.

In the dry evergreen forest, there is a 40 meter tall tower and weather station. From (nearly) the top, you can see out over the canopy.

Panorama from above the tree canopy. This was only a fraction of the view.

After climbing the tower (more pictures of the climb and the view are on my Flickr account, see sidebar)
Thanks so much to the wonderful people at Kasetsart University!

I'll upload a post about Sakaerat's mushrooms and conservation goals soon!


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Highlights from the Mushroom Research Centre workshop of Northern Thailand diversity (July 28- August 2)


Chiang Mai, Thailand

Most days of the workshop consisted of a collection foray to a local forest in the morning, and an evening in the lab. Many participants were collecting for a specific project, but I took the workshop as an opportunity to hike, work on my mushroom photography, learn how to morphologically identify more mushrooms to genus, and ask other participants about their work. More pictures are on my Flickr photostream (on the right bar of the blog).


Mycologists in their natural habitat.

This Cookeina sp. was particularly large and impressive. This genus is often called "eyelash cup fungus" for obvious reasons.

Thailand has a high diversity and abundance of Ophiocordyceps s.l. species. These fungi parasitize various insects and arachnids and fruit spectacularly from their corpses.

Some sort of coralline fungus (Calocera ?) appearing through the leaf litter.

The exoskeleton of a cicada, shed on the underside of an old polypore fungus. When I found it, there was an ant crawling across the mold growing on the exoskeleton left on a fungus, which was also growing mold. Peculiar interactions.

Termitomyces sp. for sale at a roadside stand. This genus is distinctive-- the pointed cone on top is quite solid and often coated in dirt, evidence of how they have to push their way through packed soil. This genus is named for its obligate symbiotic relationship with termites, which "farm" fungal mycelium. The mushroom fruits from the cultivated mass in an underground termite colony. They are widely eaten and command a relatively high price.


This bolete is being parasitised by another fungus.

This fungus typically fruits from pine cones.

A typical collection box containing small/fragile specimens. Larger collections are wrapped in tin foil and placed in a basket.

One of my favorite shots of a very small Xylaria that had almost completely covered a large log.

Eske takes pictures with intensity for her taxonomic research.
A beautiful Amanita. The cap was covered in fragile, powdery "warts" that crumbled at the lightest touch.
A very unusual Boletus that either collects or exudes liquid.

One day, these dogs followed us from start to finish.

The view from one of the day's hikes.

These were very small but striking.

A milk cap exuding "milk/latex" from a small cut. Member of the genus Lactarius or the newly (ish) described Lactifluus 

A member of the genus Phallus.


The only picture of me from the field, with backpack, camera bag, collection box, and anti-mosquito jacket. Thanks Henri.
Beautiful fungus - Panellus sp.
"Bruising" response of a bolete
Taken by Alvin Tang-- group picture of most of us.

Bamboo forest.