Glow-in-the-dark fungi

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Omphalotus nidiformis, the Ghost Fungus, photographed by its own light

Sometimes the most unexpected things appear literally in our backyard. This happened in February 2016…

I looked out the loungeroom window and did a double take. A huge three-foot-high cluster of white fungi had sprung up on a tree stump in the backyard. Overnight, or so it seemed.

When I went outside and had a close look I noticed the caps were funnel-shaped, the centre of each brown or tinged purple; the gills underneath were forked and extended down the stem. I realised this was most likely Omphalotus nidiformis, the Ghost Fungus, famous for its bioluminescence. In other words, it glows in the dark.

The last time I saw these fungi involved a bushwalk down 1200 stairs into the Jamison Valley at night, lugging tripod and camera to photograph a small cluster in the rainforest. That was March 2013. But this colony just ten steps from my back door was the biggest I’d ever seen!

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I could barely wait for night-time.

At last, when twilight dimmed into black, there it was: a ghostly glow in magnificent tiers up the sides of the stump. It took my breath away.

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(Click on images to enlarge)

Omphalotus nidiformis grows on dead and living wood in forests throughout southern Australia from south-east Queensland to eastern South Australia, in Tasmania and south-west Western Australia. In case you’re wondering, it is not edible — unless you wish to spend several hours vomiting. Cases of poisoning have reputedly occurred as a result of confusion with edible oyster mushrooms.

It’s one of more than 75 species of bioluminescent fungi worldwide. Why do they glow? Bioluminescence means that light is generated by a chemical reaction inside the living organism. There are several hypotheses for its purpose in fungi. It could be that it attracts nocturnal invertebrates that help disperse the spores, or it might attract predators that eat mycetophagous (fungus-feeding) invertebrates. (While Omphalotus is poisonous to humans, this doesn’t mean it’s poisonous to other species.) Our eyes are poor at distinguishing colour in dim light so we perceive the glow as whitish. The camera, however, records it as green.

The books tell us this species has no smell, but I was aware of a powerful mushroomy odour permeating the air around the cluster. In the still night it was distinctive, evocative, and unforgettable.

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Tiny rove beetles feed on spores between the gills

While taking photos over the next hour I noticed a multitude of life converging on this part of the garden. There were slugs eating the caps, tiny rove beetles feeding between the gills, moths attracted to the eerie glow and a spider on the prowl, seemingly enticed by the bonanza of bugs. The fungus had become the centre of an entire ecosystem!

The following night I realised how short-lived this ecosystem was. The fungus still glowed, though slightly less brightly but the bustle of life was gone, like a country town on a Sunday afternoon. After a few more days the cluster had shrivelled to shapeless remnants. Soon, there was no evidence at all that a wonderland of interconnected life had briefly existed on this unremarkable stump.

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19 thoughts on “Glow-in-the-dark fungi

  1. Paula Peeters 29 July 2016 / 12:27 pm

    Hey Carol, great to see you’ve taken up blogging, and thanks for this post. I’ve seen a similar glowing fungus on Lord Howe Island but have never tracked down the Queensland variety. Now I have a much better idea of what to look for! Cheers, Paula

    Like

    • Carol Probets 29 July 2016 / 4:05 pm

      Thank you Paula! I’ve enjoyed your artwork and writing for quite a while so am happy you may have learnt something here. I’m still very new to blogging but looking forward to doing lots more. Best of luck chasing down those fungi! Carol

      Liked by 1 person

    • Carol Probets 30 July 2016 / 12:06 am

      Thank you for dropping by and commenting. Glad you liked the pics!

      Like

  2. Gloria Sun (孙诗嘉) 30 July 2016 / 12:21 am

    So cool! That’s awesome that you found such a specimen in your own backyard! Good luck with your blogging journey!

    Like

  3. Gemma 30 July 2016 / 1:43 am

    Wow that’s such a cool picture of it glowing! And nice info about it too, I enjoyed reading all about it! Looking forward to seeing more of your blog! hope you can check out/follow mine https://myhappycornerblog.wordpress.com 🙂

    Like

    • Carol Probets 30 July 2016 / 2:00 am

      Thank you Gemma, glad you like it. Your blog looks great and I look forward to exploring it in more detail. Congrats on your graduation!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gemma 30 July 2016 / 2:09 am

        Thank you!!

        Like

  4. kang Rahmat 30 July 2016 / 7:58 pm

    Hallo Carol, I am kang Rahmat from Indonesia. This post very clearly and I like your first posting. anw, in my country many kind of fungi live. And between them, there are we eat.

    Like

    • Carol Probets 30 July 2016 / 9:13 pm

      Thank you Rahmat! I’ve never been to Indonesia but I know you have a great variety of fungi, birds and other living things. I’d love to see them one day! I had a look at your website, your photos are excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kang Rahmat 30 July 2016 / 9:25 pm

        thank you for visiting my web. . let’s keep posting 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

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