CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Fossil Fungi

By Thomas N. Taylor, Michael Krings, & Edith L. Taylor
2014, Academic Press, London.
ISBN-10: 0123877318 ISBN-13: 978-0123877314
398 pages; more than 475 illustrations
Price: US$150

When we hear the word “fossil,” a number of things quickly come to mind: large bones or shells mostly. Leaves or impressions of plant structures embedded in rock. Maybe even animal tracks left behind in mud that over epochs has turned into rock. Surely mushrooms and other fungi will not come to many peoples’ minds. And with good reason. It’s logical to think that harder structures like thick bone and shells will more readily fossilize; softer organic material like the tissues of animals, plants, and fungi much less so. It’s certainly true for the fruitbodies (“mushrooms”) of fungi—they are poorly represented in the fossil record. Let me stop right there and correct myself. I should have said that fungi are poorly known from the fossil record. Part of the reason for this is that those who study fungi—mycologists—are typically not looking for fossils of them. Those who find fossilized fungi are typically archaeologists or palynologists (those who study plant pollen—which fossilizes quite well, by the way)—and they have little interest in, or knowledge of, fungi. Or would not likely be able to recognize a fossilized fungus in the first place.

As a group, you may be surprised to learn just how many examples of fossilized fungi are known. Indeed, so many that a brand new book is devoted to the topic. Fossil Fungi was published in 2014 but I only first heard about it last year. I immediately ordered a copy. Although the book is pricey, I feel it is well worth it. The production is very good; the binding superior, the paper very high quality, and the images—tons of them throughout the book—are very high resolution and some downright dazzling. If you have room on your bookcase for only one book on fossil fungi this should be the one. (Frankly, I know of no other books on fossil fungi, so it’s the only one on my shelf!)

The authors of Fossil Fungi have devoted their lives to the topic and are keenly qualified to put together a book on “paleomycology.” If unfamiliar with the term, this book opens with “What is Paleomycology?” and also reviews the “History of Paleomycology,” “Naming Fossil Fungi,” and “How Fungal Fossils Are Formed and Studied.” Much of what we know about ancient fungi is from fossils of plants with fungi on or within their tissues. This includes very small extant fungi that are not even very well known like glomalean mycorrhizas and chytrids. In addition to actual fossils left behind, paleomycologists also study print and impressions left in rock of ancient fungi, amber, even particular minerals (funginite) that form as fungi fossilize. Much of the terminology in a book such as this will be unfamiliar and so the authors have mercifully included a huge glossary of more than 700 terms defined.

My favorite chapters of the book, and truly must-reads for anyone studying fungi on an academic or even amateur level, were grouped in a section on the evolutionary history of fungi—and plants. Fungi are among the oldest terrestrial Eukyotes, sure, but they are among the oldest Eukaryotes overall. “How Old are the Fungi?” documents the recent flurry of findings coming from ongoing studies; fossils play an important role in fungal taxonomy as explained in “Phylogenetic Systematics,” “Molecular Clocks,” “Early Fossil Evidence,” and “Fungi and the First Land Plants.” Good reviews of fungal symbiosis are in the chapter “Symbiosis: A Critical Component of Life,” and covered later in the book where the authors discuss particular groups of fungi and symbiosis with arthropods (a favorite topic of mine).

The authors have specific chapters devoted to each of the major groups of fungi and what is known about their fossil record; that includes lichens, bacteria, and even funguslike organisms. In all, this book is an extremely well done look at a facet of mycology unknown to most mycologists. Fossil Fungi is an amazing and comprehensive review of paleomycological research and published literature—the Bibliography includes some 2,700 entries. Indeed this book is a treasure trove of unearthed knowledge that I will go back to repeatedly for years to come.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi