Is it a plant or an animal – exploring Queensland rainforests

Why did the mushroom go to the party?
Because he’s a fungi!
Louis Tomlinson

Rainforests are magical places. There is so much to see, hear, feel and smell. There are giant trees, twisting and looping vines, melodic birds, dank soil, tumbling waterfalls, and rough, fuzzy, hairy bark along side smooth and mossy rocks. Another feature of rainforests that deserves some attention are organisms that are often overlooked. Fungi.

Fungi are fascinating. Being neither plant nor animal, despite sharing some properties common to both, they are recognised in a kingdom all of their own. There are five kingdoms used for classification of organisms: Plantae, Animalia, Fungi, Monera (bacteria), Protista (unicellular organisms). Unlike plants fungi do not photosynthesise. Having no chlorophyll they can’t convert sunlight into food. Being unable to produce their own food like other plants they scavenge it, like animals. Another trait shared with animals, or more correctly insects, is the existence of chitin in their cell walls.

Fungi’s role in the rainforest while not terribly glamorous is functional. Fungi recycle and decompose material. Many people don’t realise that the soil in rainforests is quite poor. To ensure rainforests continue to grow in this poor soil fungi break down organic material allowing nutrients to become available to plants for growth. These tiny fungi enable the huge trees to live. Now that’s pretty cool.

To be accurate, there are three basic types of fungi that feed off dead or living flora and fauna. There are Saptrotrophs that break down animal and plant remains so nutrients can be released and taken up by new living plants and animals. Parasitic fungi, on the other hand, attack living tissues and divert their resources to their own use. Mutualists digest wood to help other rainforest beings such as insects and help feed released nutrients back into growing trees. Not glamorous but definitely functional and way cool!

The dampness of the rainforest is essential, as some fungi need it to pump up their cells to keep their shape. Stronger fungi don’t need water for their form but to grow they require a high concentration of water in the wood they digest.

Have you ever hiked in a rainforest or national park and been required to dip and scrub your boots? Often this is because of the way fungi reproduce. They produce large numbers spores; some fungi release up to 200 million spores an hour. These spores are tiny and once discharged can travel huge distances. They are mostly distributed by wind but in the rainforest, the spores of many fungi are eaten and dispersed by insects and animals. Humans are animals. The grooves of hiking boots can carry many spores from place to place and be deposited when the caked on soil dries and falls out. Unwanted or troublesome strains of fungi spore can easily and inadvertently be transported this way.

Of huge importance is that rainforest fungi are not for human consumption. My best advice is to never eat fungi; many varieties can be toxic or fatal to humans. Leave the slugs, snails, cassowaries, rat kangaroos and insects to feast on fungi. Eat your trail mix instead.

Next time you are in the rainforest explore the small magic; look down, pay attention to the fallen trees and stumps. Enjoy the shape and the colour and the arrangement of the fungi on display. They play a vital role in our rainforests.

If you are not quite convinced, I leave you with some fun fungi facts.

  • Without fungi, dead plant material such as leaves, twigs and logs would pile up on the forest floor to form a massive heap as high as the canopy.
  • Some fungi glow in the dark.
  • It is possible there are more fungi than plants or animals.
  • One individual fungus of the species Armillaria bulbosa covers an area of 15 hectares. It weighs an estimated100 tonnes (the same as an adult blue whale), and is thought to be over 1500 years old.
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My plans went awry today and it was great!

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh

Wilderness places and the natural world are antidotes for an anxious mind and tired body. I went for a drive today.  It was longer than expected ― the way was blocked by a landslide close to my destination. I rerouted, the long way, and after more hours than intended I arrived high up in the hinterland where a cool breeze whispered around my body and danced in my hair.

I set out with the intention of shrugging off months of overwork and brain drain on a 17 kilometre walk. Alas, it was not to be. The track was closed due to recent weather events and was unsafe. This was not shaping up to be the day or the soothing balm I had intended. Not to be deterred I opted for a much shorter though highly picturesque walk and drank in the gifts around me.