There are so many large and colourful life forms to see in the Wet Tropics that many interesting but less visible species go unnoticed, particularly those on the rainforest floor. This is where the mushrooms and fungi come into the picture. They play an important role, but for most of their lives they remain hidden inside rotting wood or in the soil - only making a cameo appearance when it is time to reproduce. Some are bright and colourful and others smell distinctive but, even then, they may go unnoticed by the visitor who is not looking out for them.
Some fungal species are annoying - like those that spoil your loaf of bread or invade your camera lens. However, mushrooms and fungi are critical to life on earth, especially in the rainforests. Fungi invade wood and soil and break them down into nutrients so that they can be reused by other plants and animals. Many mushrooms will only live on certain plant species and the means by which they reproduce is fascinating and diverse.
Fungi are different from plants in three ways:
Mushrooms and some fungi scavenge by sending down long filaments (called mycelium) which penetrate wood and soil, breaking these elements down in the process. When they are ready to reproduce, a fruiting body is sent to the surface and spores are produced and dispersed. This part of the life cycle is visible to the casual observer and it depends on the climate as to when and how long this phase takes.
In the warmth of the tropics, mushrooms and fungi can be seen at most times of the year, but particularly during the wet season. When visiting the rainforest or gardens where a natural plant-based mulch is used, the summer rains spark a flurry of fungal breeding activity. Garden beds erupt into carpets of mushrooms until they release their spores and disintegrate back into the soil to be broken down themselves.
If you are interested in looking for mushrooms and fungi the next time you're wandering through the forest, there is a volunteer survey program that you can participate in. Everything you need to know can be found on the Fungimap website.
Although fungi are not a part of the plant kingdom, they are often mistaken for plants. In fact, fungi are so unique that they have a kingdom of their own. There are five kingdoms used for classification of organisms. They are Plantae, Animalia, Fungi, Monera (bacteria), Protista (unicellular organisms). Recent research suggests that fungi are more closely related to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom.
Mushrooms and fungi have been classified into types based on their structure. There are:
The claim to fame of mushrooms and fungi is, without a doubt, the highly poisonous nature of a large number of them. Rule number one when finding any mushroom or fungus in the wild is DO NOT EAT IT! Unfortunately, there are not a lot of people in Australia who are experts in the fungi (called mycologists) and many species await description. Although there are some worthy texts with information on some spectacular specimens, it is often only the larger fungi that are covered and even then, only a sampling of species. Toxic plants and fungi can make you very sick or could even kill you!