Forest Fungi

Skyrail Nature Diary: February 2010

Did you know that fungi are not part of the plant kingdom? In fact, some researchers believe fungi are more closely related to animals than plants! Why is this? Fungi do not contain chlorophyll, they do not produce their own food and they contain chitin in their cell walls, which is similar to the exoskeletons of insects.

There are five biological kingdoms used to classify life on earth: they are Monera (bacteria), Protista (unicellular organisms), Plantae, Animalia and Fungi. Found globally, fungi are a diverse and colourful 'family' which invade the nooks and crannies of forests, gardens and even our homes.

In the Wet Tropics Rainforests of Cairns and Tropical North Queensland, fungi flourish in the summer rains, making now the very best time to see them. They come in many forms and colours: some even glow at night, like in the forests of Avatar's Pandora, which means they are bioluminescent.

Interesting fact: There are a number of bioluminescent residents in the Wet Tropics Rainforests, including fungi, fireflies, glow worms and some large earthworms.

Mushrooms and fungi are critical to rainforest life and survival. They invade wood and soil, breaking it down into smaller nutrients, which can then be used by plants and animals. In this process, they enrich the nutrient content of the forest floor, allowing rainforests to grow and flourish on otherwise poor soil.

Fungi are most important to the rainforest ecosystem, as they are able to degrade lignin, which is the most durable component of wood. There are specific fungi that specialise in this and they are collectively known as bracket fungi.

Bracket fungi are usually dull coloured. They grow on fallen tree trunks and dead trees that are still standing. They start small and get bigger with time. They are probably the most commonly seen fungi year round, as they do not need water for their structure, however, they do need a high moisture level in the wood they digest.

Many mushrooms will only be seen at wetter times of the year, as they rely on water to inflate their cells and keep their form. This is especially true of umbrella-shaped fungi, such as mushrooms and toadstools.

Fungi do not flower, they produce spores which are released and dispersed by the wind, rain, animals, or by the fruiting body literally exploding. Most rainforest fungi are highly toxic to humans and should never be eaten, however, they do provide a food source for slugs, snails, insects and the Southern Cassowary.

There are only a few scientists who specialise in fungi research, therefore, there is still much to be learnt about them. However, there are believed to be approximately 250,000 species of fungi in Australia, only 5% of which produce fruiting bodies large enough to be seen by humans.