Death Is Life!
Fungi – nature’s exquisite recyclers
Photographs by Vivek Gour Broome
The mould on your bread and the whitish growth you see on damp leather are both fungi. When talking of biodiversity, fungi hardly find mention, but the fact is that India has a mind-boggling 13,000 species of fungi, of which about 3,000 are endemic. These little-known organisms are made up of knots of thin threads called hyphae that grow into a network called the mycelium. The mycelium absorbs food and water, grows, swells and opens out into the umbrella-shaped structure that we recognise as the mushroom. This is actually a spore-producing structure, referred to as the fruiting body and represents a relatively short period in the fungi life cycle. Fungi lack chlorophyll and hence cannot produce their own food. Most are saprophytic, growing on and decomposing a variety of matter ranging from dead wood to dung and humus. In the process, fungi perform a vital recycling function, returning nutrients to the food chain. Some fungi are parasitic, growing on living tissue and others get their nutrition through a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain plants.
1. Termite hill mushrooms Podabrella sp.
These and other edible mushrooms of the genus Termitomyces have an interesting relationship with some species of termites that cultivate the mycelium on chewed particles of wood in a brain-shaped ‘fungal garden’ inside the termite colony. The termites feed on this mycelium. In the monsoons, the mycelium threatens to grow too fast and produce fruiting bodies. With some species, the mycelium is transferred above the ground by termites, while in others, the fruiting bodies grow rapidly and force their way to the surface on their own.
2. Stinkhorns Lysurus sp.
Stinkhorns come in a variety of shapes and get their name from the foul-smelling mass that coats the upper part of the fruiting body. This mass also contains the spores. In the forest, it is often the odour that gives away the stinkhorns. Flies are also attracted by the smell and help disperse the spores.
3. Oyster mushrooms Pleurotus sp.
There are many different species of Pleurotus, with shades varying from a delicate pink to cinnamon brown to grey. They usually grow on wood and cultivated varieties of Pleurotus are grown on paddy straw or sawdust. Unlike other agaricales, oyster mushrooms have an asymmetric pileus (fruiting body), which is attached to the substrate laterally.
4. Bioluminescent fung
Certain fungi have a luminous mycelium, which can only be seen at night. They are usually found in high rainfall areas along the crest-line, where damp conditions prevail for months on end. Twigs, leaves, branches and rotting logs infected by this mycelium glow with a dim, eerie light. Some fungi also have luminous fruiting bodies.
5. Birds’ nest fungi Family Nidulariaceae
These tiny fungi normally grow on humus or rotting straw. Each cup looks like a bird’s nest with eggs, and is about 0.5 cm. across. This species has an interesting method of spore dispersal. When a raindrop falls into the ‘nest’, the ‘eggs’ or periodoles get splashed out. In the process, they trail a thin cord, which wraps around twigs or grass and the periodoles dangle until they release their spores.
6. Microporus sp.
Polypores normally grow on wood, and many have leathery, long-lasting fruiting bodies. In some genera, individual fruiting bodies keep growing in size year after year. Microporus only grows for one season and is often collected, varnished and sold as a curio.
7. Bracket fungi Scenidium sp.
An interesting feature of this bracket fungus is that the spore-producing tissue lines the inside of hexagonal pores which are on the lower surface of the fruiting body and not normally seen. When seen from below, the pores resemble the cells of a honeycomb.
8. Dacryopinax sp.
These fungi resemble some of the coral fungi, but they grow on wood, not humus or soil. They are long-lasting and can be seen for more than a month during the monsoons. They shrivel up during dry spells and revive to their full size when the rain returns.
Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXI No. 3, June 2001.