Dwelling Among Us

A fungal foray.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

In late summer, especially after tropical depressions bring several days of rain to my North Caicos garden, I find that weeding chores extend to more than pulling grass and purslane from herb beds. My orchids, growing on chunks of knotted driftwood, in coconut husks, and in wooden baskets full of coarse charcoal, are invaded by their own weeds — mushrooms of several ilk bloom overnight from the dead wood, creeping out between the orchids’ clutching roots.
One overcast day, a particularly creepy wood ear fungus had manifested itself out of the driftwood on which one of my dwarf Encyclia hybrids grows. I pulled it off the wood, its gummy, fleshy texture feeling like a disembodied organ in my hand. Its sweet, earthy scent reminded me that most wood ears are edible, but as I rubbed it, the gel layer inside ruptured its skin — it was too old to eat.
Actually, fungi are not weeds at all, because they are not plants. They occupy a kingdom all their own, behaving somewhere between plants and animals. Delicious to deadly, fragrant to foetid, gorgeous to gruesome: the fungi of the Turks & Caicos Islands are a diverse and remarkably important portion of our biodiversity.

Red cage fungi mushrooms resemble, in sight and smell, rotting animal flesh!

Red cage fungi mushrooms resemble, in sight and smell, rotting animal flesh!

Fungi aren’t given their due typically. Most people encounter them only regularly in the form of a few cultivated species in the supermarket, or as unwanted green or black patches on week-old bread or fruit. Our limestone thicket habitat seems too dry to be favourable to many fungi, but there are many — pretty much everywhere in fact, hiding carefully.
The archetypal image of a fungus is usually a mushroom — understandable, because that is how we interact with them most often. But a mushroom is only the reproductive part of the fungus. The organism itself leads a clandestine life, the complete opposite of its ostentatious and rapid reproductive exposition. Mushrooms release tiny, dust-like spores — the fungus’ seeds of reproduction and a significant portion of the dust we breathe in and out every day. But beneath the mushroom’s base, the fungus itself exists as a network of fibres, webbing through dead plant material, burrowing inside rotting wood, or even encrusting roots of living plants.This is the true identity of the fungus, the network of fibres called mycelia, comprising in turn finely branched digestive threads called hyphae. The role of hyphae is to secure food for the fungus — like animals, and unlike plants, fungi cannot make their own food.
Also more similar to animals than plants is the genetic code of fungi, suggesting unexpected origins. These genetic codes are used increasingly by mycologists (biologists specialising in fungi) to identify the one to five million species worldwide. Previously, identification was largely done only by the reproductive structures, the mushrooms, but now DNA analysis can identify a species with much more certainty. In some cases, fungi have been described as two separate species from collections of mushrooms and mycelia being classified differently, something only now being reconciled in scientific collections by DNA analysis.
The Jew's ear fungus if edible, often dried before using.

The Jew’s ear fungus if edible, often dried before using.

Identifying fungi with such certainty is a challenge for several reasons: mushrooms may appear seasonally or climactically and the structures are short lived; some never appear above ground; many species look similar and individuals within a species can vary considerably; and mycologists are a decidedly rare group of biologists. Often it has been botanists who take on this role even in large institutions. The difficulty in identifying fungi means that those who wish to harvest their own mushrooms from the wild have to be well-trained and absolutely certain what they’re collecting.
Until very recently, with previously only one scientific fungal collection ever made in the Turks & Caicos Islands, such identification was impossible. Now, with several well-seasoned mycologists turning attention towards the Turks & Caicos Islands, we are beginning to get a better idea of our fungal biodiversity.
The weeping cork fungus feeds on dead heartwood of living trees.

The weeping cork fungus feeds on dead heartwood of living trees.

Some species of fungi we have begun to identify are quite obvious in their habitats. Others are more covert. Bracket fungi and red cage fungi feed, like many fungi do, on decaying wood (indeed they help cause the decay). Others feed on leaf litter, or parasitize living plant tissue or even animals. These fungi are mere eaters, they do not share their food. But not all are so selfish.
Some of the most concealed of all fungi are the truffles, famously flavourful but difficult to find. There are native truffles in the Caicos Islands, but they are tiny and do not have the culinary value of their larger European cousins. Truffles are simply mushrooms that never grow above ground — they bloom under the soil, their aromas inviting burrowing animals to dig them up to disperse the spores.
Truffles are not just there to please human palates, they have a far more important function: helping the forests in the islands exist. The mycelia of these fungi grow around the roots of trees, encrusting them and branching out into the soil — they are the symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Every amateur chef knows the rule about not washing mushrooms in water because they will draw too much in — this amazing propensity for absorption is something the mycorrhizal fungi use to their advantage, and to the advantage of the trees on which they live.
Drawing up more water and nutrients than a plant root alone can, these fungi work hard underground, sending a portion of their subterranean spoils into the trees roots to which they cling. The tree appreciates the extra food and water (and in some cases, depends upon it entirely) and repays the fungus by sending it sugar, the tree’s finished product, and something the fungi can use to consume and grow.
The success of the common sea grape in infertile, sandy habitats can be attested to its favoured fraternizing fungus, and our National Tree, the Caicos pine, owes its ability to exist in pockets of thin soil on limestone bedrock to a diminutive truffle as well as several other species of inconspicuous fungi. Several of these unassuming species have recently been discovered as species new to science in the Turks & Caicos and work is ongoing to describe them at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Several species of earth stars, a complex type of puffball, grow in the Islands.

Several species of earth stars, a complex type of puffball, grow in the Islands.

Other fungi are slightly more apparent. Weeks of late summer rains invoke the appearance of various fruiting bodies emerging from tree trunks, rotting logs, leaf mulch, and bare soil. Those emerging from bare soil are most often associated with living tree roots as mycorrhizal fungi; others are usually feeding on dead plant material.
The mushrooms’ purpose is to release spores, the wind-carried reproductive product to make more of their kind. For some, simply dropping spores out of their gills (layers of tissue fringing the underside of most mushrooms) is enough. Others employ more definite tactics: red cage fungi attract flies into their lacy orb mushrooms with the scent and appearance of rotting animal flesh and then disorient them so they become covered in spores before flying away to carry them elsewhere; earth stars and puffballs present inflated, thin-skinned balloons full of spores to raindrops, which strike with enough force to squeeze puffs of spores out. A number of fungi species have learned to team up with algae to form lichens, so closely tied as two species from two separate kingdoms living symbiotically that each pairing is given its own scientific name.
This terrifying cicada club fungus feeds on the living tissues of insects.

This terrifying cicada club fungus feeds on the living tissues of insects.

Perhaps the most incredible, and slightly terrifying, are the mind-control fungi. Several groups of fungi have adapted to growing in the live bodies of insects, and when ready to fruit, infect the insect’s central nervous system to cause it to perform behaviours beneficial to the fungus. Cordyceps fungi, which attack paper wasps in the Turks & Caicos Islands and myriad other insects around the world (each species of Cordyceps attacks one species of insect), force their hosts to climb or fly high into tree branches in open areas, and clamp down with their jaws and legs before the fungus finally kills them and grows mushrooms out of their heads.
Ophiocordyceps fungi similarly alter behaviour in cicada nymphs underground, forcing them to dig upward to within a few inches of the soul surface, and die in an upright position so a three inch linear mushroom can grow out their thorax and bloom above ground. Luckily, such terror is, thus far, visited only upon arthropods and not mammals or humans. Perhaps, realising the potential power of fungi, I will leave the wood ears on my orchid limbs alone from now on — an act of appeasement to the kingdom, so my mind is spared.

Fungi of TCI remain poorly understood and under-documented. Photo records of fungi are always helpful, and may be shared with the author for identification by our network of experts. Many thanks to Dr Michael Vincent of Miami University of Ohio in the identification of the fungi presented here.

Note: Never consume wild mushrooms that have not been identified by an expert. Many species look very similar and some are quite dangerously toxic.

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Marta Morton, owner/operator of Harbour Club Villas (www.harbourclubvillas.com) took this photo of the native Turks & Caicos rock iguana on Bay Cay. This endemic animal is being threatened by the invasive green iguana. See article on page 36.

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