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Mount Kinabalu: Reliving the Golden Age of Discovery

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A spectacular Entoloma aff. purpurea species from the montane forests at ca. 2000 meter above sea level. Photo: Luis Morgado.

A spectacular Entoloma aff. purpurea species from the montane forests at ca. 2000 meter above sea level. Photo: Luis Morgado.

Why would any sane person want to climb a 4000-meter mountain with a 25-kg backpack and an electric heater tied on his back? Normally, it may be difficult to find a reason. In this case, however, the answer is simple: to catch the first glimpse of the fungal diversity of Mount Kinabalu.

While the plant and animal life of this mountain has been the focus of numerous research projects, Kinabalu has remained a terra incognita for scientific studies on fungi. Given the complete lack of background information, one can either lament the lack of basis to form any specific research hypothesis or relive the golden age of discovery and see every find as a possible candidate for being a newly discovered species. Hence, we collect “everything that moves”, or more correctly, “everything that fruits” in every vegetation zone from the lowland rainforests through cloud forests to the subalpine shrub zone. Furthermore, armed with cutting edge DNA-techniques, we also sample soil to detect fungi that may not fruit during our short visit or at all.

Many cup fungi, such as this Cookeina species, are found in the lowland rainforests. Photo: József Geml.

Many cup fungi, such as this Cookeina species, are found in the lowland rainforests. Photo: József Geml.

It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by this task. After eight days in the field, we have already collected more than 400 mushrooms and other fungal fruiting bodies that likely represent at least 300 species. One of the manifestations of this diversity comes in the endless variety of shapes and colors that sometimes are truly breathtaking. While the detailed scientific work will take years, we already know that many of these species are new to science. Similarly, in the ca. 300 soil samples we have taken to date, we will likely find hundreds if not thousands of species, among them many newly discovered ones.

This ant was infected by a Cordyceps fungus. It alters the ant’s behavior to find a resting place ideal for spore dispersal, such as the lower side of a leaf. Photo: Joris van Alphen.

This ant was infected by a Cordyceps fungus. It alters the ant’s behavior to find a resting place ideal for spore dispersal, such as the lower side of a leaf. Photo: Joris van Alphen.

Despite collecting during the day with Luis Morgado, my fellow mycologist, and drying specimens (you may have wondered about that electric heater earlier…) and taking samples for DNA work during the night, our efforts surely only scratch the surface of the vast hidden diversity of fungi on Mount Kinabalu. For example, we do not include endophytic fungi, fungi in leaves and stems of plants, or animal pathogens, such as this ant-pathogenic fungus pictured here, likely belonging to the genus Cordyceps or its allies. Nonetheless, the vast amount of data (including millions of DNA sequences) that we will generate from these samples will provide the first estimates of the number of fungal species in the various elevational zones of Mt. Kinabalu upon which further research projects can build.

In the end, I do not think I have become any saner and one day will climb the mountain again in this lifelong search for fungi.

Luis Morgado climbing Mount Kinabalu with two backpacks and a heater. Photo: József Geml.

Luis Morgado climbing Mount Kinabalu with two backpacks and a heater. Photo: József Geml.

Previously in this series:

Mystery of the Mountain
Mount Kinabalu: First Sight of the Summit
Mount Kinabalu: In the Footsteps of Wallace
Mount Kinabalu: Love and Loathing in the Rainforest
- Lisa Becking – Mount Kinabalu: A marine biologist lost at forest

József Geml About the Author: József Geml is an Assistant Professor in Mycology at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden University, The Netherlands. He works on the molecular ecology and systematics of fungi from the Arctic to the Tropics.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Dr. David 3:40 am 09/24/2012

    This article is a gem! This is a long-awaited elegant and witty article by an expert in Arctic fungi, and I am delighted to see that Dr. Geml is working on tropical mushrooms too. I’ve been following his research especially on Amanita, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria Fascinating research! And I must add, I cannot wait to read the results of his newest expedition.

    Morgado should be humble and feel VERY lucky to be able to study from Dr Geml, as he is a top scientist in his field!

    SA, please publish more of Dr. Geml’s work.
    Thanks, Dr. David

    Link to this

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