Enthusiastic amateurs advance science in the hunt for exotic mushrooms

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Hypocreopsis rhododendri growing in the United States, a discovery that delighted scientists and mushroom enthusiasts.”/>

Photographer Taylor Lockwood found the rare mushroom Hypocreopsis rhododendri growing in the United States, a discovery that delighted scientists and mushroom enthusiasts.

Taylor F. Lockwood

Let’s be honest. If you are a mushroom researcher you are hopelessly inferior.

By an estimate, there are between 2.2 and 3.8 million mushroom species – and more than 90% of them are not cataloged.

But mycologists (as mushroom professionals are called) are getting a huge boost from a surprisingly sophisticated world of amateurs – both those who trudge through the woods and observe strange species, and those who helped build a community that the amateurs with the pros.

Sometimes the amateurs come with breathtaking discoveries.

See the story of Taylor Lockwood, a 74-year-old mushroom lover and professional photographer. This spring we met in the hills of West Virginia, where he roams the countryside in a van that he’s converted into a motor home, photo studio, and workshop.

“I’m in my Edison mode,” he says, indicating the circuit boards and hardware he’s cobbled together.

More on that in a minute, but first the backstory. Growing up, Lockwood spent the 1970s playing electric violin and other instruments in western bands.

A love affair with mushrooms

He also worked as a carpenter. And in 1984, he fell in love while living on the California coast of Mendocino. With mushrooms.

“There were these beautiful mushrooms in front of my hut,” he says. “And it was like those mushrooms were looking at me and saying, ‘Taylor, go out there and tell the world how beautiful we are.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ “

Lockwood bought camera equipment and began photographing mushrooms with passion. One of his pictures is even on a US postage stamp. He says sometimes he would dig a hole for his camera next to a mushroom to get just the right angle.

“I wanted to see her like a frog,” he says.

His passion for mushroom photography has taken him around the world. And what he has found and photographed is not only interested in art.

Like many hobby mushroom pickers, he works symbiotically with the mycologists in universities and state laboratories.

Taylor Lockwood invented his own ingenious equipment for photographing mushrooms in the wild.

Taylor Lockwood invented his own ingenious equipment for photographing mushrooms in the wild.

Taylor F. Lockwood

“I may have hundreds or thousands of photos of things that are unnamed, unknown, or known on another continent,” he says.

He made one of those memorable discoveries here in the Monongahela National Forest. A few years ago he came across something he had never seen before: a mushroom that looked like tiny fingers in cream-colored gloves.

“Like most mushrooms, I saw it as a natural beauty,” he says, “and that’s why I photographed it.”

A website for sharing mushroom photos became a scientific treasure

He put this photo on a website called. posted pilzoberver.orgwhere professional and amateur mushroom experts meet to gather information. The site is the brainchild of Nathan Wilson, another amateur who started the project in 2006.

“I’ve always wanted something computational to share my observations of mushrooms that I’ve made throughout my life,” he says. So he applied his software knowledge to the task.

“I told my friends about it and they told their friends about it and it was more successful than my wildest dreams,” says Wilson. He says it is now home to millions of images from around the world. And these days he’s not alone – innaturalist.org also catalogs millions of mushroom images along with records of many other branches of the tree of life.

These are not just beautiful pictures. They are a valuable scientific resource.

“There are a lot more amateurs than professionals,” says Wilson, “and the pros often rely on amateurs – or they do Quote Amateurs. “

“It’s not uncommon to find people who aren’t professionals who are still world-class for their ability to identify groups and even publish species,” he says.

Experienced amateurs like Taylor Lockwood provide not only images but also data.

An eye for natural beauty leads to an amazing discovery

His photo caught the attention of Amy Rossman, who for many years directed research at the federal government’s extensive mushroom collection in Beltsville, Maryland. She recognized the different shape of this mushroom, but found only three records of how it grows in the United States – two from Tennessee in 1888 and a third from Maine, which was cataloged in 1915.

A sample of this rare mushroom was given to a graduate student in Scotland, the done a DNA test and verified his or her identity, Hypocreopsis rhododendri, known under the common name “Hazel Gloves” in the United Kingdom, where it is rare.

Rossman says that not only is it rare, it also seems to have a bizarre lifestyle. It doesn’t grow directly on wood. It is a parasite that lives only on another species of fungus that forms a crust on rotting wood.

“But the crust mushroom itself isn’t very large. So you would be wondering how do you get a parasite so much larger than what it parasitizes?” says Rossmann.

One hypothesis is that he essentially uses the crust mushroom as a straw and soaks up nutrients through it. It’s hard to study, because most of the time, mushrooms like to live hidden as tiny threads called mycorrhizae that run through their hosts.

Mushrooms “are not like plants,” she says. “They do not occur at the same time every year, and so it can sometimes take decades for a mushroom to bear fruit” – that is, when it produces a mushroom cap. Rossman says that is why it is so valuable when people like Taylor Lockwood poke through the woods with trained eyes.

He gives me an idea of ​​what it is like by taking me back to where he found the specimen a few years ago.

“Who knows where it could be at this point!” he says, looking at an abundance of fallen and rotting branches in a swampy hollow adorned with ferns. But then something interesting strikes him.

He reaches down to get a close look at a fallen branch that has turned a color not normally seen in wood.

“This is blue-green Chlorociboria, ” he says. “It’s not bearing any fruit now, but it shows the blue-green color of the mushrooms in here. And when little fruiting bodies come out, it’s beautiful blue-green little ears.”

Lockwood has been retired to this location for his latest attempt – and this goes back to the history of his portable workshop and “Edison Mode”.

A few years ago, he decided that still photos weren’t enough. He decided to make time-lapse videos of mushrooms.

“If I do time-lapse, you’ll find that there is a lot, a lot of life going on around the mushroom – insect life and worms and all kinds of things like that,” he says.

His art is not only to photograph a mushroom over time, but also to set his camera in motion to create otherworldly videos. One of his videos looks like it could be an outtake from the science fiction classic, User picture. At a campsite he builds a curved track out of PVC pipe and places a motorized, wooden camera platform on it.

“These are all handmade things,” he says. He connects the motor to a circuit he has built so that the platform moves a little slower than a snail’s pace while the camera takes a photo every six seconds.

This is a test run to try out new equipment he’s built. It may take him weeks or even months to find the perfect mushroom to film, but at 74 he is a patient man and happy to be in the woods, making discoveries and taking beautiful pictures.

“I love science, but I’m an artist at heart,” he says. “I love doing that and I love finding beautiful mushrooms.”

And sometimes beauty and science overlap.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



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