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The hunt for the most elusive fungi in the Amazon: examining life, death, and zombie mushrooms.
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The hunt for the most elusive fungi in the Amazon: examining life, death, and zombie mushrooms.

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As the sun sets over the Ecuadorian rainforest, two scientists come across their first zombie. Alan Rockefeller cautiously moves forward, using an ultraviolet light to examine the moist ground and plants, as the earthy scent fills their nostrils.

Out of nowhere, a part of the foliage starts to emit light: strands of bright cordyceps, illuminated by the torch. This type of fungus, also called the “zombie fungus”, is notorious for taking over its insect hosts and forcing them to find a place to spread spores. This is where the host will meet its demise.

A Cordyceps nidus fungus held the palm of a hand
A hand holding a branch with two small orange fungi on it, in the rainforest of Pastaza, Ecuador
A hand holds up a stick growing Schizophyllum commune fungus that glow in UV light.
Mandie and Alan hold up four monkey combs in the rainforest of Pastaza, Ecuador.

Mandie Quark crouches in the damp, soft soil, delicately excavating her fingers around the fungus that kills insects to reveal the bug hiding beneath the ground: a beetle the size of a thumb. They take care to illuminate and capture a picture of their discovery before embarking on their two-mile journey back home.

Two mycologists are currently conducting a research expedition in the unprotected rainforests of the upper Amazon in Ecuador. Their goal is to carefully record and document some of the rarest fungi in the world. Unfortunately, these fungi have been decreasing rapidly due to climate changes, as well as illegal activities such as logging and mining.

Mandie Quark wearing wellies and a backpack hikes through the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.

The Amazon rainforest is full of a wide variety of plants and animals. There are numerous types of fungi found throughout the landscape, with many yet to be identified. Rockefeller and Quark meticulously gather information by taking photos and documenting each sample, which will then be sent to the national herbarium in Quito for eventual DNA analysis.

Rockefeller and Quark have a common goal of sharing their findings about fungi in the Amazon with the rest of the world. This will aid in the conservation of the environment in Ecuador and beyond. They collaborate with the Sacha Wasi community, who have invited them to conduct research on their land. The scientists and the community exchange knowledge about various fungal species and their potential uses in cooking and ecology.

Alan Rockefeller examines the rainforest dirt wall for mushrooms in Pastaza, Ecuador.
A woman holds up a torch to photograph a mushroom on a tree truck with her phone
Closeup of a camera lens pointed at a clump of tiny mushrooms
A woman kneels on the forest floor to take a close up photograph of a Ophiocordyceps melolonthae fungus
A tiny pink Clavaria cf. schaefferi fungi on the forest floor is illuminated by two lights in front of a camera lens
Two Indigenous women crouch among forest vegetation with their dog to observe pinwheel mushrooms of the genus marasmius, with Alan Rockefeller who holds a camera pointed at the fungi

The heart of the process involves the technique of myco-photography. Every time the camera is clicked, it is an effort to capture a brief instance in the life cycle of these delicate organisms, which primarily exist below ground. Rockefeller’s objective is to take the highest quality photo in order to generate interest in biodiversity and inspire others to further their knowledge of mushrooms.

The duo uses various methods such as macro photography combined with focus stacking to capture even the smallest details of mushrooms. They also study the spores under a microscope and collect DNA “barcode data”. Their approach aims to enhance the current knowledge of fungal diversity by documenting each mushroom accurately.

A man in a cap gazes up at the camera at fungi growing on a tree trunk, while a woman in the background photographs some on fallen log

According to Rockefeller, it is crucial to know what you possess in terms of conservation. Simply claiming to have an unidentified, scarce mushroom will not suffice.

“If a name can be assigned to it, it can be conserved. It is crucial to have a name for these fungi in order for researchers to conduct chemical analyses and make new discoveries. This allows for efficient communication and proper identification of the specific fungus being used. Therefore, taxonomy plays a crucial role in this process.”

A collection box of fungi

Unfortunately, the majority of individuals will never get the chance to explore the rainforest and witness the wide range of rare fungi it contains. To combat this, Rockefeller and Quark have utilized social media and app-based platforms, like iNaturalist, Mushroom Observer, GenBank, and MycoMap, to share their discoveries. This allows others to closely examine the intricate characteristics of these fungi before they potentially disappear.

As they traverse the difficult landscape of the Amazon, their goal is to expose the vast possibilities of fungi and emphasize the need to protect these irreplaceable ecosystems.

Rockefeller and Quark sit on a decked porch to label their fungi collection samples
A labelled fungi sample is added to the dehydrator
View from above of a man and a woman taking samples from three plastic collection boxes filled with fungi on a wooden decking
Rockefeller looks at spores under the microscope sitting at a table decorated with pink flowers in a vase

Quark states that in today’s world, it can be challenging to remain in the present moment as there are constant distractions demanding our focus. However, the work being done by Quark and their team is aimed at highlighting the importance of being present and motivating others to do the same.

She states: “Mushrooms can be found at the edge between life and death. They serve as a reminder that life is temporary, just like our human experience. To discover a gorgeous mushroom, one must be fully present and use all their senses to appreciate the brief moment when the mushroom is at its peak.”

Quark examines a mushroom on the walls of the rainforest near a waterfall

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X for all the latest news and features

Source: theguardian.com