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Mount Kinabalu: Green Stars of the Forest

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


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Bioluminescent mushrooms glow late into the night. Photo: Luis Morgado.

Bioluminescent mushrooms glow late into the night. Photo: Luis Morgado.

Not so long ago, gods and witchcraft were the main explanations for natural phenomena. Nowadays scientists and science can explain even the most incredible findings. However, in the night of the tropical rainforest we found something that would make even the most rational scientist wonder about the magical world.

In an expedition such as this, where one has a time window of only two weeks and the ambition to sample as many species as possible of the fungal world, one must walk in the limbo of tiredness and making the most out of this opportunity. The usual expedition biologist goes out to the field in the break of dawn and returns to camp with precious material and amazing findings by sunset. After that, a big part of the night is spent processing and storing the material, checking colleagues’ findings and of course taking the so much needed rest to be able to do it all over again in the next day. However, if one always follows the standard procedures, one risks missing out on wonderful discoveries.

That’s why József Geml (my fellow mycologist and supervisor) and I try to keep an open mind and go “outside the box” for fungal research. Guided by the discovering spirits of Persoon and Wallace, we also walk the forest after sunset, wishing to see the light some fungi emit. Glowing mushrooms are rare but they do exist outside the psychedelic world. This phenomenon is known as bioluminescence and can only be seen in the complete darkness of the jungle night. During daytime one might pass by and even photograph them without knowing it, but only a nocturnal excursion reveals this incredible phenomenon that remains hidden in plain daylight.

Bioluminescence is the result of an oxidation process, and it is not at all well documented in “the fungal world”. In fact, it is only known for a few fungal species and this discovery will most likely add new species to the list and contribute to its understanding.

Bioluminescence in fungi most likely is a highly evolved strategy for spore dispersal as the fungus attracts insects that can carry the spores to new substrates. While most mushroom spores are air dispersed, hitching a ride on insects may be particularly advantageous in the rainforest, where wind is minimal. However, after witnessing such an incredible phenomenon one can’t stop wondering about the far-fetched theories that surround the magical “world” of fungi.

 

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 – Mount Kinabalu: Reliving the Golden Age of Discovery
- Rachel Schwallier – Looking for a Toilet on Mount Kinabalu

Luis Morgado About the Author: Luis Morgado is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden University, The Netherlands. He studies fungal biodiversity around the world, from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and the Tropics.

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





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