Friday, 2 December 2016

A trip to Kew

I joined the British Mycological Society earlier this year. Mainly because it seemed like the cheapest way to get access to the journal Field Mycology which I'd been told is full of essential information for an aspiring mycologist such as myself. But also because I quite fancied the idea of joining a 'learned society' and finding out what it takes to be a serious mycologist.

The joining process was slightly daunting. The membership form requires the names of two existing members who 'propose' you. Or else you have to supply a brief curriculum vitae giving details on your interests in mycology, and I wasn't sure whether a CV stating, "I don't know much about mycology but I'm very interested," would really cut the mustard. Luckily, Sussex-based mycologists Martin Allison and Vivien Hodge were willing to vouch for me as a "suitable and desirable applicant", and with their names on the form I soon received an email notifying me that my membership request had been accepted.

So it was that I came to be invited to the British Mycological Society's Autumn Meeting and AGM on Saturday 26 November.

I wasn't going to go. The talks sounded rather heavyweight. The titles included words like "phylogeny"; and I didn't know what "phylogeny" means. But the idea of going to a meeting at the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, seemed, well... cool. So I sorted out some tunes for the journey and headed for the M25.

I'd braced myself for some awkward loitering before the talks commenced. But as I stepped through the doors of the Jodrell Laboratory, I was greeted by the sight of a table top book sale. The British Mycological Society library was selling off surplus books. And what a pleasure it was to peruse this treasure trove of mycological tomes.

I narrowly resisted purchasing this one by John Ramsbottom, which might have the most gorgeous cover I've ever seen.

My eye was then drawn to this book: FUNGI And How To Know Them, by E. W. Swanton. The title was immediately appealing, as it sounds like exactly the sort of book I wish would be published now. (Peter Marren's Mushrooms has come close, but is a little light on biology and ecology.)

Flicking through the introduction I noticed E. W. Swanton wrote this book in Haslemere, where I grew up, as he was the curator of the Educational Museum, where I received my first introduction to the world of mycology! I had to have this book.

I also invested in a copy of British Boletes by Geoffrey Kibby, which I hope will give me the confidence to attempt some more Bolete identifications (they've all tended to look rather the same to me this year).

Anyway. I should tell you about the talks. They were fascinating! Although I'm not very well equipped to relay them in detail.

Beatrice Senn-Irlet spoke first about the work they're doing on fungi distribution, ecology and conservation in Switzerland. Beatrice explained how records of fungi (held by, alongside other sources of environmental data, are used to drive predictive species distribution models highlighting geographic areas which may be important for fungi conservation.

I liked Beatrice's comment that, "It's worth collecting the data, we can do quite a lot of things with them." an inspiring message for all us field mycologists.

Beatrice also described work that's been done looking at neomycetes (translation: new fungi), many of which may present threats as invasive or potentially invasive species. One example she talked about was Favolaschia calocera which is spreading rapidly across the globe. It first appeared in Britain in 2012 and has since spread to several sites in Devon and Cornwall.

The photos Beatrice showed were absolutely gorgeous I'd never seen anything like it.

Favolaschia calocera 38204.jpg
By Michael (inski) - Favolaschia calocera (38204), CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
But concerns were raised about the damage it may be doing to woodlands, having recently observed its effects in Cornwall where recent storms have brought masses of damaged wood down from the canopy.

Reflecting on the matter of neomycetes spreading so rapidly across our increasingly globalised and changing planet, another member of the audience noted that "some of these species are going to cause a lot of problems and some of them will be refugees." He asked, "How do you tell the difference?" There didn't seem to be a simple answer to that question.

Next up Tuula Niskanen spoke to us about Cortinarius and the work she's been doing on the taxonomy of this genus.

Tuula's talk made me feel OK about being rubbish at identifying Cortinarius. She explained that, in the Cortinarius, "most of the morphological characters are continuous". That means it's very hard to see, from features you can observe, where one species stops and another one starts.

DNA barcoding tools and databases are according to Tuula "awesome" in genuses such as this which are very confused, and she's been working hard on sorting out the taxonomy. But even with the insights that DNA can provide, Tuula's view was that you need to try and be practical and keep the old names where possible. Not least because "old names are really hard to kill".

Tuula picked out a couple of species she reckoned field mycologists could have a go at:
  • C. alboamarescens – a teeny tiny white Cortinarius with really small spores, which tastes bitter if you lick the cap (not recommended for Cortinarius novices, as other species of Cortinarius are deadly poisonous)
  • C. glaphurus – a two-coloured, dry, Cortinarius with a brown cap and white stem, turning to blue/purple near the cap. And it smells of cedars.
They still sound pretty tricky to me.

Unfortunately (according to Tuula anyway, and she seemed to know what she was talking about), there are no good field guides to Cortinarius and no good keys. In any case, the continuous nature of the Cortinarius makes them rather unsuited to traditional dichotomous keys.

Tuula explained that there are around 400 species of Cortinarius in Britain and she reckoned, with a couple of years training (going out with an experienced mycologist who is familiar with the Cortinarius) there are around 100 species that you can identify in the field – you just need to know which characters to look for.

It seems, with Cortinarius at least, there is no substitute for going out with someone who knows what they're looking at.

Following that, Ricardo Castilho talked about the survey work and analysis he's done looking at Amanitas in the Iberian peninsula.

Ricardo had a fairly sobering photograph of a toxic mushroom mixed up with a basket of edible Amanita ponderosa, for sale in a local market somewhere in the Iberian peninsula. His point being, "bad taxonomy can kill". I was starting to get the message that taxonomy is WAY MORE EXCITING than I'd ever imagined it would be. You can read about Ricardo's work here.

Jill Kowall, in her talk entitled "Liverworts to the rescue!", explored the relationships between heather, liverworts and mychorrhizal fungi. Jill's laboratory research and field work has shown that the presence of liverworts and their associated mycorrhiza can promote more vigorous growth in heather. Jill suggests that these findings could have important applications in heathland restoration.

Over the lunchbreak, Martin Bidartondo offered a short workshop on reading phylogenetic trees. So now I know what phylogeny means. It's evolution, stupid!

There was the business of the British Mycological Society AGM after lunch. The first AGM I've ever been to where somebody complained it wasn't long enough. Even with the cracking pace, it was clear that the British Mycological Society has had a busy year.

Of most interest to me personally was mention of the new online Fungal Records Database of Britain and Ireland (FRDBI). I had heard whispers that a new fungus recording system was in the pipeline, based on the iRecord / Indicia toolkit developed by the Biological Records Centre. I have a considerable amount of involvement with iRecord / Indicia through my work at Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre, so I've been keen to find out how the toolkit is being deployed to support fungus recording. I was pleased to learn that the new FRDBI site is now operational, although access is currently restricted to previous FRDBI users while they check the site is fully functional. I've requested a new user account, so I look forward to submitting my (hopefully not misidentified) records, as soon as they let me at it.

After the AGM, Sietse van der Linde from Imperial College talked about the research he's been doing on ectomychorrhizal fungi in European Forests. This talk pretty much blew my mind. Working in collaboration with a network of 'research forests' across Europe, Sietse has been mapping mycorrhizal fungi across Europe's major forest types: Beech, Scots Pine and Norway Spruce. By taking soil core samples through the forest floor and running DNA bar-coding on the fungal hyphae growing in association with the trees' root tips, the project has begun to map the distribution of fungi across these forest sites, based not on observations of the fruiting bodies (as field mycologists would traditionally do) but based on where the mycorrhiza are growing. This introduces a new problem, as the DNA of the many of the fungi Sietse is finding do not match up with the DNA profiles that exist on record of known and described fungal species. That means projects such as this have to deal in 'operational taxonomic units' as well as traditional 'species' concepts. What Sietse is finding is that his distribution maps based on presence of mycorrhiza don't necessarily match up with the recorded distributions based on field observations of the fruiting bodies. I sense there is much here to be learned about fungal ecology and distribution.

Pepijn Kooij then introduced us to the world of fungus-growing ants. Pepijn describes his work much better than I ever could in this blog. But, in summary: ants are amazing, fungi are amazing put the two together and evolution starts to seem pretty darn incredible.

Next up was Filipa Cox discussing the distribution of fungi in Antarctica. Filipa referenced an hypothesis proposed by Lourens Baas Becking, which I'd never heard before and rather liked: "Everything is everywhere, but the environment selects". Her research showed that Antarctic soil fungal communities show similarities to the distant Arctic.

Last, but definitely not least, came Pierre-Arthur Moreau, with a lively romp through nearly three hundred years of taxonomic wrangling in the genus Morchella: the true Morels. At one time thought to number as few as three distinct species, taxonomists have now described around 70 species worldwide, many of which are thought to be restricted to a particular continental range. I'm afraid it leaves little hope for the amateur field mycologist hoping to identify any morels she stumbles across. But very interesting, nonetheless.

With many thanks to Martin Bidartondo for organising such an interesting day.

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