The Magpie Fungus and its friends

David Beeson, Late October 2021

Harewood Forest, an ancient woodland in North Hampshire, is mainly populated by pedunculate oak trees. Most of these trees are one hundred to one hundred and fifty years old as many were previously culled during the First World War for the production of gunpowder. In a few surface chalky locations beech trees grow and have reached nearly to the edge of the atmosphere and their branches play host to raptor nests. Beneath their shedding canopy of brown-orange leaves few plants thrive, amongst them are the beautifully flowered white helleborines and their youngsters are still showing green leaves even as their parents are sleepily dormant.

Discarded beech leaves are still rich in energy and nutrients, and they will feed plenty of invertebrate detritivores and fungi. Autumn is the ‘pay day’ for the woodland floor organisms.

Fungi may show themselves only occasionally, yet they are here in abundance. And now is when they show their spore-producing bodies.

The Magpie Fungus (Coprinopsis picacea) is scattered here beneath the huge cathedral trunks. It is a rare organism, yet is said to spread even as far as the USA.

Young Magpie Fungus

Although most of this fungus lives invisibly in the soil as a saprotroph with its fine network of filaments decomposing plant life, its fruiting bodies are outrageously exhibitionist. However, it is not a fungus I will carry home for food, as it is said to have disastrous consequences on humans.

Probably, its single hyphae are cytoplasmic. That is, the strand has no cross cell walls … so it is not divided into cells like most organisms. Individual hyphae are part of the subsoil mass called the mycelium, which is the organism. The fruiting body being a transitory structure that grows rapidly with an uptake of water into the hyphae, and not by cell numbers increasing.

A handsome organism

Invertebrates carry out the first stage in the decay of the leaves, cutting them and egesting what they fail to capture in their guts. The fungal threads secrete exo-enzymes to break this down. Once the nutrients are absorbed by the hyphae threads those resources will be employed to grow the network; which is said to be extensive.

As with flowering plants, each fungal species will survive in its own niche. Some live on growing trees, others on twigs, more on decaying wood and the Magpie Fungus on the organic matter in the top soil.

It is easy to think of fungi as plants, which they are not. Fungi share little in common with their green neighbours. Not their method of nutrition, not their body structure or histology, nor their life cycle or reproductive strategy. Fungi are fungi. Think Athlete’s Foot as a comparison to a Giant Redwood tree!

Fully open and about 30cm tall
And then it was gone …

Elsewhere many different fungi are showing themselves. (Corrections of identifications appreciated!)

Amanita muscaria, young Fly Agarics
Agaricus silvcola?
This ring is about five metres in diameter. (Fungus as above)
Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum releases spores through a central opening when the body is fully ripe.
Dead wood is often quickly colonised by fungi. Here the mycelium’s enzymes must be digesting the cellulose of the trunk with cellulase enzyme.

http://www.nwhwildlife.org is the HOME PAGE. Scroll down for articles on the fungal close relative – Slime Molds … fungi that move off resembling an animal. Amazing.

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