Big Conference on the Big Island

© Peter Werner
Original publication: Mycena News, October 2005

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Mycological Society of America (MSA), this year held jointly with the Mycological Society of Japan annual meeting. I admit that my motivation to attend was in no small measure influenced by their choice of meeting location—the University of Hawaii at Hilo, on the Big Island, a part of the world I’d always wanted to see.

While I had hoped to see lots of examples of unusual Hawaiian mycota while I was there, it apparently was well past the main part of the mushroom season, so the number of species of fleshy fungi that were actually fruiting during my visit was actually quite low in spite of the heavy rain and often intense humidity on the windward side of the island.

Nonetheless, Don Hemmes—the UH Hilo mycologist (and all-around great guy) who hosted the conferences—led a foray and general sightseeing tour of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. As expected, we spent more time looking at volcanoes than mushrooms, but we did see abundant fruitings of Rhodocollybia laulaha, an interestinglooking fleshy (but unfortunately bad-tasting) mushroom with distinct labyrinthine lamellae. This species is only encountered in native ohi’a forests in the Hawaiian islands and is most likely an endemic.

Matthew Keirle, formerly of SFSU and now working on his PhD at the Field Museum of Chicago, is planning to carry out an interesting population study of this species. He will collect this species from several of the major Hawaiian Islands, isolate molecular genetic markers, and use these to see whether the population structure of this species resembles that of silverswords or other classic island biogeographic distributions, with distinct isolated populations on each island, or whether there is frequent island-to-island migration via spore dispersal. This study should go a long way toward telling us how well we can apply population models developed for animals and plants to fungi.

The meeting itself, as always, presented an almost-overwhelming wealth of information, with almost 200 symposium talks, and over 450 poster presentations. I’ll present a few of the highlights here.

There were a number of presentations on fungal systematics, many with a strong emphasis on biogeography, an area of increasing importance in the study of fungal systematics. Chihiro Tanaka gave a presentation on the work that he and Takashi Oda had done with the Amanita muscaria/A. pantherina group. They had found that A. pantherina could be divided up into at least two distinct (perhaps species-level) groups, one in North American and the other in Eurasia. A. muscaria could similarly be divided, but with a montane Eurasian population forming a third distinct group. They also found that the mushroom they had been calling A. pantherina in Japan wasn’t A. pantherina at all, but rather a brown species that was really closer to A. muscaria. This was named, appropriately, Amanita ibotengutake after the Japanese name for this species (which translates to “goblin mushroom”).

Kerry O’Donnel presented a summary of the work he has carried out in collaboration with Nancy Weber and others on the systematics and biogeography of Morchella. Generating phylogenies from sequences of three loci from a number of morel populations from throughout the Northern Hemisphere, he than examined where there was congruence between these phylogenies (in other words, in all three phylogenies, the population is distinct from others) and treated the resulting 28 distinct groups as distinct species (though none are so far named and described morphologically). Morels still fall out into two distinct monophyletic clades—a Morchella elata (black morel) and a M. esculenta (yellow or white morel) group—so traditional morel taxonomy isn’t that far off-base. Significantly, he found that within the black morel group, there were a number of distinct species of ‘fire morel’ that did not appear to ever grow as ‘naturals’, nor do ‘naturals’ seem to ever grow as ‘fire morels’ (the fire morel species collectively did not form a distinct monophyletic group, however).

There was an entire symposium on arctic and alpine mycology. These cold regions are apparently areas of considerable fungal biodiversity, including mushroom diversity. Orson Miller, Jr gave a talk summarizing his work over the years on Alaskan tundra fungi. Apparently he has found 41 species of ectomycorrhizal mushrooms associated with shrubs and small trees such as dwarf Salix, Betula, and Dryas. This region is also rich in bryophilous fungi such as Galerina and Phaeogalera. Cathy Cripps found a similar pattern with alpine tundra fungi of the high Rocky Mountains, and specifically discussed a group of arctic/alpine Amanita species (A. nivalis, A. arctica, and A. greonlandica) that tower above their dwarf willow hosts.

There were a number of papers and posters describing biodiversity surveys. Jean Lodge and Tim Baroni described a survey of a Belize mountain known as Doyle’s Delight (the setting for Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”) which yielded 30 species new to science. Sara Branco presented a poster about her survey comparing fungal species in Portuguese oak woodlands at serpentine and non-serpentine sites, revealing only 17% species overlap between the two types of site. Tsutomu Hattori described the importance of amateur mycological societies in Japan (of which there are over 80) in carrying out fungal biodiversity surveys, including several clubs that survey specific sites on a monthly basis. Edgar Lickey described a similar event in Great Smokey Mountains National Park - a periodic “mycoblitz” in which members of NAMA along with academic mycologists intensively foray in one area, and as many species as possible are described and vouchered.

There were, as always, quite a few presentations and posters on mychorrhizal ecology. Kabir Peay discussed research he and several other workers from UC Berkeley are carrying out concerning the role that mycorrhizal fungi may play in alleviating drought stress through increased water use efficiency in Bishop pine. Kobayashi Hisayasu and others presented a intriguing poster on two species of Entoloma that have been found to be ectomycorrhizally associated with a number of species in the family Rosaceae, including apple, asian pear, and several species of Prunus, Rosa, and Pyracantha. Joyce Eberhardt and others from USDA Corvallis presented a poster summarizing a ten-year survey of the effects of different harvesting techniques on long-term American matsutake productivity. As one would expect, careful harvesting had no significant impact on productivity, but raking up leaf litter, at least without replacement of duff, did have a significant negative impact over time.

Of course, mycorrhizas are far from the only interesting example of fungal symbiosis and there were a number of other presentations on lichen and insect/fungal symbioses. Jolanta Miadlikowska discussed research she and a number of other workers are doing on endolichenic fungi - that is fungi that live within a lichen thallus much the same way as endophytes live between cells in plant tissue. Whether these endolichenic fungi play any role alongside the dominant fungus in the lichen symbiosis is unclear. Kenji Matsuura described an intriguing form of symbiosis in which a corticioid fungus, Fibularhizoctonia, produces sclerotial structures that morphologically and chemically mimic the eggs of the termite Reticulitermites. The termites are apparently fooled into taking care of these sclerotia as if they were their own eggs, tending to them and keeping them free of pathogens. The relationship is sometimes symbiotic, with the false eggs actually promoting termite egg survival, but in certain conditions the false eggs can act pathogenically as well.

These and hundreds of other presentations helped bring me up to date with the current state of mycological research, but also proved a bit overwhelming and provided the need for a well-deserved rest, which another week on the Big Island amply provided.