Article: Raudabaugh, D.B. P.B. Matheny, K.W. Hughes, T. Iturriagad, M. Sargent, A.N. Miller. 2019. Where are they hiding? Testing the body snatchers hypothesis in pyrophilous fungi. Fungal Ecology 43 (2020).
Why did everyone want to hang out with the mushroom? *
If you’ve ever been for a hike in the woods after it rains (especially where I live in Northern California), there’s a good chance you’ve seen fungi (pronounced “fun – jie”) – although you might have called it a mushroom. But what we think of as “mushrooms” are really only one stage in the lifecycle of an organism. What we know as a mushroom is the “fruiting” body of a fungus, which is the part that creates spores, sort of like the seeds of a plant. These spores will travel until they settle somewhere to “germinate”, like a seed sprouting, and then expand in the soil.
* Because he was a fun-guy!
There’s A Fungus Among Us!
Although you may associate seeing mushrooms after a particularly rainy or wet day, scientists have observed that some species of fungus are more likely to show up right after a wildfire, but they didn’t know why. They guessed that pyrophilous (“pyro” = fire, “philous” = loving) fungi were hiding within fire-resistant plants, such as lichen, during the fire, and releasing spores after the area stopped burning. A new study by Raudabaugh et al. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tested this hypothesis by sampling different types of plants, moss, lichen, and soil in both burned and unburned areas in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The researchers found DNA from 22 species of pyrophilous fungi inside many different types of plants, moss, lichen, and soil samples, in very different geographic areas all over their study sites. Because of their ability to hide within other living organisms, the researchers named this life history strategy the “bodysnatching hypothesis”.
Why Does This Matter?
This is the first study of its kind to determine a previously unknown life stage of pyrophilous fungi. It is likely that far more than 22 species of fungi were present in other plants in the areas the authors studied in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but were not able to be identified through the available DNA sequencing techniques. The researchers suggest that these fungi have likely evolved multiple life history strategies in order to survive living in areas at high risk of disturbance, like fires.
“Body snatching”, or hiding in plants and soil is one way these fungi can ensure they will be able to reproduce in the future. Having fungi spores available to readily recolonize burned areas could be important to avoid erosion and redistribute nutrients after a fire.