What is a Fungus?
You’ve probably seen a mushroom in the woods—growing out of a decomposing log, right? All those little log mushrooms actually belong to a taxonomic group designated the Kingdom Fungia. Fungi (singular fungus) include toadstools, slime molds, yeast, mushrooms, athletes foot fungus, and more. Some are colorful. Some are drab. Many are yummy. A few are deadly poisonous.
Far too many people in the in the western world have a bad impression of mushrooms. They don’t know much about them. Some of us were taught from a young age to stay away from them because “they could kill you.” People are afraid of touching wild mushrooms, let alone eating them. Some experts have diagnosed this as Mycophobia or fungiphobia, an unreasonable aversion or fear of mushrooms. If you don’t believe me, start telling your friends and family how interested you’re becoming in mushrooms and see what their reaction is.
In this biodiversity portal, we’d like to get rid of your mushroom fears and introduce you to the wonderful world of fungi. We’re teaming up with some of the world’s best mushroomers, mycologists, and researchers to decipher some of the mysteries of this wonderful underground kingdom. Of course, it wouldn’t be Untamed Science if we didn’t include some pretty amazing videos of our mycological adventures, too.
The technical description
For those of you who want a detailed and technical description of what makes a fungus a fungus, the following paragraph is for you.
A fungus is a eukaryotic organism that is a member of the kingdom Fungi. Fungi are heterotrophic organisms possessing a chitinous cell wall. The majority of species grow as multicellular filaments called hyphae – forming a mycelium; some fungal species also grow as single cells. Sexual and asexual reproduction of the fungi is commonly via spores, often produced on specialized structures or in fruiting bodies. Some species have lost the ability to form specialized reproductive structures, and they propagate solely by vegetative growth. Yeasts, molds, and mushrooms are examples of fungi. The fungi are a monophyletic group that is phylogenetically clearly distinct from the morphologically similar slime molds (myxomycetes) and water molds (oomycetes).
Fungi are more closely related to animals than plants, yet the discipline of biology devoted to the study of fungi, known as mycology, often falls under a branch of botany.
There are a few main taxonomic groups that divide fungi. We’ll keep it simple by starting with the four most common types. The Basidiomycota are what come to mind when most people think of a mushroom: having a stalk and cap. The Ascomycota are sac fungi that are typified by morels and sac fungi. The Zygomycota are all pretty small; bread molds are good examples. The Chytridomycota are the final group, made famous by the devastation they’re inflicting on the amphibians of the neotropics. The diagram below should give you a simple way to visualize these groups.
If you’re new to identifying mushrooms, the first thing you’ll probably think is, “boy, they all look the same!” Our culture has not trained us to notice the differences among them. We can tell a head of cabbage apart from some romaine lettuce pretty easily. We can even tell different types of apples apart. Mushrooms are extremely diverse, and (with practice) anyone can identify the mushrooms in their area.
This might be a good time to note, however, that many mushrooms are poisonous. For those wishing to identify mushrooms for edible purposes, we highly recommend starting with mushroom forays (hunts with local experts) before ever attempting to eat a wild mushroom. With that said, we don’t want to discourage anyone from the amazing world of mushrooms. There really is nothing more fun than finding a mushroom in the wild and learning to identify it. The following is a very basic overview of the names given to the parts of a typical mushroom.
Some Video to Introduce the Fungi
Since we feel that video is one of the easiest ways for you to learn a topic, we’ve created a few videos on mushrooms that we’re excited to share with you.
Mushrooms Explained by a Troll
We produced this video for Pearson’s High School biology textbooks. We thought the treatment was pretty fun, and it definitely gives a good introduction to the kingdom Fungi.
A Short Fungi Ecofact from your Crew (formerly The Wild Classroom)
This particular ecofact was produced by Rob Nelson via The Wild Classroom. This is one of the first pieces we ever did.
Introduction to Poisonous Mushrooms
In this short video, produced by Jaime Jacobsen, we’re learning a bit about mushroom identification. The video was originally produced for a middle school audience and will be published in Pearson Publishing’s middle grades textbooks. Many thanks to Tradd and Olga from Mushroom Mountain for helping with this video.
Books on Mushrooms for the Beginner
Mushrooms have been a constant source of mystery for us. The way they emerge out of what seems like nothing in the ground has always made us want to learn more. Recently, we happened upon a treasure trove of mushroom resource books. The first two are by Paul Stamets and the last one by David Arora. Between these three books you should have everything you need to get interested in mushrooms. Plus, if you so choose, you’ll be able to grow your own.
Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms by Paul Stamets
Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
Paul Stamets on TED talks
This video is a great overview of some of the main messages mycologist Paul Stamets gives on the benefits of mushrooms.