Fascinating facts about fungi

Fly agaric toadstool growing in grass, Hampstead Heath, London, England. The beautiful and poisonous fly agaric is one of the most recognisable toadstools in popular culture

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When autumn woodlands are bursting with colour there is just as much activity among the leaf litter. The season's fruiting fungi are pushing their way on to the woodland scene.

There are over 3,000 different mushrooms and toadstools in the UK.

Worldwide there are thought to be millions of different species of fungi, from tiny single-celled yeasts to the colossal honey fungus.

Fascinating fungi

Mushrooms

The fungi that we commonly identify as mushrooms are in fact the short-lived fruiting bodies of fungi preparing to release their spores.

Some mushrooms use animals and insects to transport their spores.

The stinkhorn fungus, for example, relies on insects and attracts them with a putrid-smelling spore cap.

Conversely the fruit bodies of the common puffball fungus rely on the forces of nature to disperse their spores. Rainwater activates the release of the spores, which are then naturally carried away on the wind.

The hat-throwing fungus is the fastest-living organism on the planet.

A number of fungi, including the hat-throwing fungus, are able to self-disperse their spores by ejection.

The hat-throwing fungus escapes the undergrowth by tracking the sunlight that penetrates vegetation and ejecting its spores through gaps in the leaf litter - at an acceleration of 20,000 times gravity.

Ghost orchids rely entirely on a relationship with fungi for nutrients.

Orchid seeds can lie dormant for long periods of time waiting for the right conditions to grow. During this time the seeds rely on the nutrients supplied to them by the thousands of fungi that live in the soil.

Unlike other orchids, the ghost orchid does not grow leaves. Instead it continues its symbiotic relationship with fungi throughout its adult life.

A gram of woodland soil can contain one million microscopic fungi.

Fungi do not photosynthesise but acquire the nutrients essential for growth from organic material such as dead wood or leaf litter.

Fungi produce nutrient-absorbing threads called mycelium that extend through the soil like an intricate web. These fine threads secrete enzymes that break down complex molecules such as lignin found in wood.

These underground fungi networks are essential for woodland life, helping to recycle and replenish essential nutrient stores.

Lichens can be used as barometers for environmental quality.

Fungi also form symbiotic relationships with green algae (and cyanobacteria) creating diversely coloured mat-like structures known as lichen.

Lichen Lichen are a relationship between fungi and algae

Many of us recognise lichen as the algae-like layer that covers rocks, fence posts and paths. In the UK alone there are more than 1,500 different lichen varieties.

Unlike many other cap fungi, the turf navel-cap forms lichen relationships. This tough fungus forms a lichen partnership with its algal partner in harsh conditions, often at high altitudes.

The St. George's mushroom fruits in spring as well as autumn.

Although autumn is the main fungi fruiting season, many native mushrooms have adapted to a second earlier fruiting season in spring.

Scientists believe that mushrooms are fruiting twice a year in response to the global rise in temperature brought about by climate change.

Jew's ear fungus can dry out and rehydrate to disperse spores.

This gelatinous species forms clumps of ear-shaped fruiting bodies that are able to dry out and rehydrate to spore.

This is useful for reproducing in areas that are prone to unpredictable weather.

The Razor-strop fungus was once used by barbers to polish razors.

This common bracket fungus, when dried out, can be used to sharpen blades and was once used by watchmakers to polish moving components. It also has antibacterial properties.

A sample of this birch bracket was found in the burial site of a mummified man dating back 5,500 years. The remains, also known as the Otzi the Iceman, were found in the Austrian mountains.

There are 14 species of deadly mushroom in the UK.

One of the deadliest UK fungi is the death cap toadstool. It has a plain appearance and looks very similar to many edible mushrooms.

It contains a high concentration of poisonous amatoxin, which breaks down the enzymes responsible for your cell metabolism. That can be fatal, so avoid any contact with the fungus.

Fungi forays are the best way to see fungi.

For help with mushroom identification get in touch with the iSpot team.

Picking and eating is not advisable unless you are with an experienced guide. Not only can fungi be fatally poisonous, some are also very rare.

Many nature reserves are holding fungi forays throughout autumn, where you can learn more about the medley of mushrooms exploding across the countryside. Many walks offer you the chance to quiz an expert as they guide you through the tricky process of fungi identification.

Contact your local Wildlife Trust for a list of events.

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