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.

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.

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.

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