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Fantastic Fungi

How these strange life-forms eat, grow, and affect organisms living nearby

Have you ever eaten a mushroom? 

If so, you’ve tasted a fungus (FUN-guhs)—a life-form that’s neither an animal nor a plant. Mushrooms, mold, and yeast are some of the most famous types of fungi (FUN-geye or FUN-jeye). But there are hundreds of thousands of species. Some fungi are made of a single microscopic cell. Others are tangled masses as big as whole towns!

Fungi may look like plants, but they are actually more closely related to animals, explains Sydney Glassman. She’s an ecologist who studies fungi at the University of California, Riverside. For instance, fungi don’t make their own food the way plants do. Like animals, they get food from their environment. Read on to learn how five of these unusual organisms survive. 

Have you ever eaten a mushroom? If so, you’ve tasted a fungus (FUN-guhs). It’s a living thing that’s not an animal or a plant. Mushrooms, mold, and yeast are some famous fungi (FUN-geye or FUN-jeye). But there are hundreds of thousands of species. Some fungi are made of one tiny cell. Others are tangled masses as big as whole towns!

Fungi look like plants. But they’re more closely related to animals, says Sydney Glassman. She’s an ecologist who studies fungi. She works at the University of California, Riverside. Fungi don’t make their own food like plants do. Fungi get food from their surroundings like animals do. Read on to learn how five of these unusual life-forms survive. 

blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo

The honey fungus’s mushrooms are  connected to others by a network of underground threads.

Honey Fungus

This patch of brown mushrooms may look harmless. But the fungus is up to something sinister in the forests where it’s found. Honey fungi like this one are parasites. They grow tough, root-like strands under the bark of trees. The strands steal nutrients from the tree, weakening it.

The fungus also uses these fibers to grow underground, sometimes across vast areas. “The mushrooms pop up in different places, but they’re all connected underground,” says Glassman. One honey fungus in Oregon spans nearly 2,500 acres—15 times the area of Disneyland in California. That makes it the largest living organism on Earth!

This patch of brown mushrooms may look harmless. But the fungus is up to something sinister in the forests where it’s found. Honey fungi like this one are parasites. They are found in forests. They have root-like strands that grow under the bark of trees. The strands steal nutrients. That weakens the trees.

These strands also grow underground. They sometimes cross huge areas. “The mushrooms pop up in different places,” says Glassman. “But they’re all connected underground.” One honey fungus in Oregon spans nearly 2,500 acres. That’s 15 times the size of Disneyland in California. It’s the largest living thing on Earth!

Dan Molter/Mushroom Observer/CC via Wikimedia

The violet coral fungus is named for the striking coral-shaped mushrooms it grows on the forest floor.

Violet Coral Fungus

This violet coral fungus grows in forests around the world. The branching structure of its mushroom isn’t just for looks. It creates a large surface where spores can grow. These tiny cells are similar to the seeds produced by plants. They help fungi reproduce. The wind often carries the spores released by fungi to new areas. There, they grow into the next generation of fungi. Making more spores helps a fungus’s chances of reproducing.

Like most fungi, the violet coral fungus is a decomposer. That means it releases chemicals that break down dead plants and animals. It recycles their nutrients back into the soil. The fungus absorbs some of the nutrients to feed itself, and the rest are left for other organisms to use. “If fungi didn’t exist, you’d just be up to your ears in dead stuff,” says Glassman.

This is a violet coral fungus. It grows in forests around the world. Its branches aren’t just for looks. They create a large surface where tiny spores can grow. Spores are similar to seeds made by plants. The wind often carries the spores to new places. There, they grow into new fungi. Making more spores gives a fungus a better chance of reproducing.

Most fungi are decomposers. The violet coral fungus is one too. That means it breaks down dead plants and animals. It recycles their nutrients back into the soil. The fungus soaks up some of the nutrients to feed itself. The rest are left for other living things to use. “If fungi didn’t exist, you’d just be up to your ears in dead stuff,” says Glassman.

Courtesy of Melanie Tardif

These red droplets oozing from this fungus are colored water, not blood!

Bleeding Tooth Fungus

This big, oozing blob is called a bleeding tooth fungus. This species of fungus is found in forests in North America, Asia, and Europe. The thick, red liquid seeping out of it isn’t actually blood but extra moisture the fungus has absorbed from the soil. Its red color comes from a natural pigment, or colored substance, produced by the fungus.

Despite its creepy appearance, this fungus plays an important role in the ecosystem. It grows a network of thin threads underground that wrap themselves around tree roots. The fungus and trees have a beneficial relationship called mutualism. The trees give the fungus sugar that they produce from sunlight. In return, the fungus provides nutrients and water that trees need to grow.

This oozing blob is a bleeding tooth fungus. This species is found in forests in North America, Asia, and Europe. It has thick, red liquid seeping out of it. But it isn’t really blood. It’s extra water the fungus soaked up from the soil. Its red hue comes from a natural coloring made by the fungus.

The fungus looks a bit creepy. But it plays an important role in nature. It grows a web of thin threads underground. They wrap around tree roots. The fungus and trees then work together. This is called mutualism. The trees make sugar from sunlight. They share the sugar with the fungus. The fungus shares nutrients and water in return. The trees need these nutrients to grow.

Photomicrograph © Chris Johnson

The dung cannon fungus sprouts tiny stalks that fling its spores to new areas.

Dung Cannon

Ready, aim, fire! This fungus launches its spores into the air like a cannon blasts cannonballs. The matchstick-shaped species, known as the dung cannon fungus, grows in piles of animal poop!

The fungus feeds on horse or cow dung and sprouts tiny stalks less than 10 millimeters (0.4 inches) high. The stalks shoot up at 90 kilometers (56 miles) per hour, flinging tiny black caps that contain the spores. The spores can reach a blade of grass up to 3 meters (10 feet) away.

Later, when an animal eats the grass, the spores pass through its body and into its droppings. That starts the cycle all over again!

Ready, aim, fire! This fungus shoots its spores into the air. It works like a cannon blasting a cannonball. It’s known as the dung cannon fungus. It grows in piles of animal poop!

The fungus feeds on horse or cow dung. It sprouts tiny stalks. They’re less than 10 millimeters (0.4 inches) high. The stalks shoot up at 90 kilometers (56 miles) per hour. They fling tiny black caps. The caps contain the spores. The spores land on grass blades up to 3 meters (10 feet) away.

An animal eats the grass and the spores. They pass through its body and into its droppings. That starts the cycle all over again!

Ben Nottidge/Alamy Stock Photo

These mushrooms grow on rotting wood in the forests of Australia and Brazil, as well as Southeast Asia.

Glowing Fungi

It’s a pitch-black night deep in an Australian forest. But there’s one spot on the ground that glows an eerie shade of green. This spooky sight is a species of bioluminescent, or light-producing, fungus. “The mushroom is bright enough that you could read a book by it,” says Dennis Desjardin. He studies mushrooms at San Francisco State University in California. 

At least 105 species of glowing fungi live around the world. They light up by combining chemicals inside their bodies, similar to a firefly. Scientists think the glow attracts insects that help the fungi spread their spores.

It’s a pitch-black night deep in an Australian forest. But there’s one bright spot on the ground. It glows an eerie shade of green. This spooky sight is a bioluminescent fungus. It makes its own light. “The mushroom is bright enough that you could read a book by it,” says Dennis Desjardin. He studies mushrooms. He works at San Francisco State University in California. 

There are at least 105 species of glowing fungi. They live around the world. They light up by mixing chemicals inside their bodies. It is similar to how a firefly glows. Scientists think the light attracts insects. They help the fungi spread their spores.

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