Friday, January 11, 2013

Discovering Fungi with Chris Kjeldsen

By Tom Greco

With the diverse array of plants and animals found throughout our region, the fungi kingdom is often overlooked. These fascinating organisms can be largely invisible throughout the year, living in the soil until the rains come and prompt them to “fruit.” In some species this results in the familiar shape of a mushroom, while in others the “fruit” (also called a sporocarp) remains underground.

Chris Kjeldsen with a Gypsy Mushroom
Chris Kjeldsen, local mushroom expert and Professor Emeritus of Biology at Sonoma State University, visited Pepperwood in December to teach staff members about the mysterious fungi kingdom.

Beginning with a general overview, he explained that one of the most important things to know is that fungi have been on the earth for a very long time. Evidence indicates that fungi were instrumental in the spread of life from the sea to the land about 450 million years ago. 

Chris explains that “the earliest known land plant fossils show mycorrhizal associations, so the fungi are a really ancient group that are connected to higher plants in an intimate way.” 

Satharella sp.

The invasion of land by plant life came not from photosynthetic organisms alone but in conjunction with fungi, indicating the two kingdoms were closely associated even long ago. Today, lichens are a great example of this inter-kingdom cooperation. They are a compound life form consisting of a fungus and a photosynthetic organism that live in a symbiotic relationship.

Gypsy Mushroom

As we investigated the mushrooms and slime molds popping up around the Dwight Center, Chris shared a fascinating story about how he became interested in fungi. When he was in junior high, his family had a place near Fort Bragg. Chris was amazed by all of the mushrooms that seemed to pop up out of nowhere every winter, and he started collecting the most unusual to show his family.  In support of his new interest, his father encouraged him to take them to a local expert.  However many of the samples were new to the expert who said that if he really wanted to learn what these were he should meet two ladies in their 70's who lived in a remote cabin in the pygmy forest of Mendocino County.

Environmental Educator Jesse Robinson
Their cabin was accessible only by a 1.5 mile long trail through old beach terraces where the nutrients had been leached out of the soil, creating unique growing conditions to which many strange fungi had adapted. The ladies were very excited to mentor Chris with his interest in fungi. He reluctantly agreed to taste some of the fungi they had preserved, including cauliflower mushroom, an experience he was unsure he would survive! These mysterious ladies, whose last names were Kelly and Boyd, were pioneering citizen scientists-a reminder that this is not a new movement! They had been documenting in tremendous detail via natural history drawings and diagrams the mushrooms they found in the forest in addition to sending samples from the pygmy forest down to UC Berkeley to build the university’s mycology collection. Without their passion and painstaking effort to document their discoveries, many generations of scientists would have lacked access to this incredible collection!

Bird's Nest Fungi

Chris’ interest in fungi continued through high school, when he collected a fruit box of assorted mushrooms and took them to Stockton where one of his father’s colleagues at the College of the Pacific, Dr. Ken Stocking, was only able to identify one – the amanita. Chris was amazed that this biology professor with his PhD could only name a single species! From then on, his path of academic study was set and in an interested twist of fate, he later taught with Dr. Stocking at Sonoma State University.

To learn more about fungi, check out the Sonoma County Mycological Association here.

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