Enthusiastic Amateurs Advance Science As They Hunt For Exotic Mushrooms
Let's face it. If you are a mushroom scientist, you are hopelessly outnumbered.
By one estimate, there are between 2.2 million and 3.8 million species of fungi — and more than 90% of them aren't cataloged.
But mycologists (as fungus professionals are known) do get a big boost from a surprisingly sophisticated world of amateurs — both those who tromp through the forests observing oddball species, as well as those who have helped build a community that links the amateurs with the pros.
Sometimes the amateurs come up with stunning discoveries.
Consider the story of Taylor Lockwood, a 74-year-old mushroom enthusiast and professional photographer. This spring, we met in the hills of West Virginia, where he has been prowling the countryside in a van he has converted into a camper, a photo studio and a workshop.
"I'm in my Edison mode," he says, gesturing toward circuit boards and hardware that he has cobbled together.
A love affair with mushrooms
More about that in a minute, but first the backstory. Growing up, Lockwood spent the 1970s playing electric violin and other instruments in bands out West.
He also worked as a carpentry contractor. And in 1984, while living on the Mendocino coast of California, he fell in love. With mushrooms.
"Outside my cabin were these beautiful mushrooms," he says. "And it was as if these mushrooms looked at me and said, 'Taylor, go out and tell the world how beautiful we are.' And I said, 'OK, I'll do it.' "
Lockwood bought camera gear and became passionate about photographing mushrooms. One of his images is even on a U.S. postage stamp. He says sometimes he would dig a hole next to a mushroom for his camera so he could get just the right angle.
"I wanted to see them just as a frog would," he says.
His passion for mushroom photography has taken him around the world. And what he has found and photographed doesn't simply have artistic interest.
He, like many amateur mushroom hunters, works symbiotically with the mycologists in universities and government labs.
"I might have hundreds or thousands of photos of things that are unnamed or unknown, or might be known on some other continent," he says.
He made one of those memorable discoveries here in the Monongahela National Forest. A few years back, he came across something he had never seen before: a mushroom that looked like tiny fingers wearing off-white gloves.
"Like most mushrooms, I saw it as natural beauty," he says, "and that's why I took a picture of it."
A website for sharing mushroom photos became a scientific treasure
He posted that photo on a website called mushroomoberver.org, where professional and amateur mushroom experts meet to crowdsource information. The site is the brainchild of Nathan Wilson, another amateur who started the project in 2006.
"I'd always wanted to have something computer-based for sharing my observations of mushrooms that I'd made over my lifetime," he says. So he applied his software skills to the task.
"I told my friends about it, and they told their friends about it, and it has been successful beyond my wildest dreams," Wilson says. He says it now houses millions of images from all over the world. And these days he's not alone – inaturalist.org also catalogs millions of fungi images, along with records of many other branches of the tree of life.
These are not just pretty pictures. They're a valuable scientific resource.
"There are many more amateurs than there are professionals," Wilson says, "and the professionals often end up relying on amateurs — or quote amateurs."
"It's not uncommon to find people who are not professionals, who are still world class in terms of their ability to identify groups and even publish species," he says.
Expert amateurs like Taylor Lockwood provide not just images but data.
An eye for natural beauty leads to an astonishing discovery
His photo caught the attention of Amy Rossman, who for many years headed research at the federal government's voluminous fungus collection in Beltsville, Md. She recognized the distinct form of this mushroom but found only three records of it growing in the United States – two from Tennessee in 1888 and a third sample, from Maine, cataloged in 1915.
A sample of this rare mushroom made its way to a graduate student in Scotland who ran a DNA test on it and verified its identity, Hypocreopsis rhododendri, known in the United Kingdom, where it is rare, by the common name "hazel gloves."
Rossman says it's not only rare, but it also appears to have a bizarre lifestyle. It doesn't grow directly on wood. It is a parasite that lives only on another species of fungus that forms a crust on rotting wood.
"But the crust fungus itself is not very big, so you would wonder, how could you get a parasite that's so much bigger than the thing it parasitizes?" Rossman says.
One hypothesis is that it essentially uses the crust fungus as a straw and sucks up nutrients through it. It's hard to study because most of the time, fungi like live hidden as tiny threads called mycorrhizae that run through their hosts.
Mushrooms "are not like plants," she says. "They don't come up at the same time every year, and so sometimes it can be decades between when a fungus fruits" — that is, when it produces a mushroom cap. Rossman says that's why it's so valuable to have people like Taylor Lockwood poking through the forest with a trained eye.
He gives me a flavor of what that's like by taking me back to the spot where he found the specimen a few years back.
"Who knows where it could be at this point!" he says, surveying an abundance of downed and rotting branches in a boggy hollow festooned with ferns. But then his eye catches something of interest.
He reaches down to get a close look at a downed branch that has turned a color you don't usually see in wood.
"This blue-green is Chlorociboria," he says. "It's not fruiting now, but it shows the blue-green color of the fungi in here. And when it has little fruit bodies coming out, they are beautiful blue-green little ears."
Lockwood has been drawn back to this spot for his latest effort — and this gets back to the story of his portable workshop and his "Edison mode."
A few years ago, he decided still photos weren't enough. He decided to make time-lapse videos of mushrooms.
"When I do time-lapse, you'll find that there's lots and lots of life going around the mushroom — insect life and worms, and all kind of things like that," he says.
His art involves not only photographing a mushroom over time, but also putting his camera in motion to create otherworldly videos. One of his videos looks like it could be an outtake from the science fiction classic Avatar. At a campsite, he sets up a curved track made out of PVC plumbing pipe and puts a motorized, wooden camera platform on top.
"It's all handmade stuff," he says. He plugs the motor into some circuitry he's built so the platform moves at something slower than a snail's pace, while the camera is set to take a photo every six seconds.
This is a test run to try out new gear he has built. It may be weeks or even months before he finds the perfect mushroom to film, but at 74 years old, he's a patient man and happy to be out in the woods, making discoveries and making beautiful images.
"I love the science, but I'm an artist at heart," he says. "I love doing this and I love doing finding beautiful mushrooms."
And sometimes beauty and science intersect.
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