Life, death and zombie mushrooms: in search of the rarest mushrooms in the Amazon | Mushrooms

TDusk falls in the Ecuadorian jungle when the two scientists spot their first zombie. The smell of damp earth and vegetation rises as Alan Rockefeller advances slowly and carefully, scanning the forest floor with ultraviolet light.

Suddenly, a fragment of the undergrowth lights up: strands of light cordyceps, made fluorescent by the torch. Nicknamed the “zombie mushroom”, cordyceps is known to colonize its insect hosts, causing them to search for a suitable location to release their spores. This is the place where the host will die.

A hand holding a branch with two small orange mushrooms on it, in the rainforest of Pastaza, Ecuador
A hand holds a stick growing the Schizophyllum commune mushroom that glows under UV light.
Mandie and Alan wield four monkey combs in the rainforest of Pastaza, Ecuador.

  • Clockwise from top left: the team finds a Cordyceps nidus, a species found in 2017 that fruits on a trapdoor spider; Rockefeller illuminates a Cookeina speciosa; then he brandished a stick on which Schizophyllum commune Grow, a common mushroom that glows under UV light; Rockefeller and Quark show four monkey combs

Mandie Quark kneels in the damp, spongy earth, carefully digging her fingers around the entomopathogenic fungus to reveal the insect nestling beneath the surface: a thumb-sized beetle. The two men carefully light and photograph their find before beginning their three-kilometer journey home.

Here in the mountains of Ecuador, the two mycologists embarked on a research expedition into the unprotected rainforests of the upper Amazon. Their mission is to meticulously document some of the world’s rarest mushrooms, which are in rapid decline due to climate change, illegal logging and mining.

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

The Amazon rainforest is home to some of the most diverse flora and fauna in the world. Countless species of mushrooms dot the landscape, many of which remain anonymous and await discovery. Rockefeller and Quark carefully collect data by photographing and cataloging each specimen for submission to the National Herbarium in Quito and possible DNA sequencing.

Rockefeller and Quark’s ultimate goal is to share their discoveries about Amazonian fungi with the world, contributing to ecological conservation efforts in Ecuador and beyond. They work alongside Indigenous people Sacha Wasi Communitywho invited scientists to operate on their lands, exchanging information on different species of mushrooms and their culinary or ecological potential.

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
Close-up of a camera lens pointed at a bunch of small mushrooms
A woman kneels on the forest floor to take a close-up photograph of an Ophiocordyceps melolonthae mushroom
A small pink Clavaria cf.  Schaefferi mushrooms on the forest floor are illuminated by two lights in front of a camera lens
Two indigenous women crouch among forest vegetation with their dog to observe mushrooms of the genus marasmius, with Alan Rockefeller holding a camera pointed at the mushrooms.

  • Top: Rockefeller walks a dirt wall in a rainforest looking for mushrooms. Middle section, clockwise from upper left: Quark wields a powerful hand-held lamp; capture a slump pinwheel mushroom in its aim; Rockefeller sets up two lights to capture Clavaria Schaefferi; Quark photographs Ophiocordyceps melolonthae. Above: Rockefeller is joined in his work by two women from the Sacha Wasi community

At the heart of the process is the art of myco-photography. Each click of the shutter is an attempt to capture a fleeting moment in the cycle of these fragile organisms that spend most of their lives underground. “My goal is to take the best photo possible to get people interested in biodiversity and want to know more about mushrooms,” says Rockefeller.

The duo’s methods include focus macro photography, a technique that captures every intricate detail of a fungus, as well as microscopy recording of spores and generating DNA “barcode data”. Through this methodology, they aim to ensure that each recorded fungus contributes to the current understanding of fungal biodiversity.

A man in a cap looks into the camera at mushrooms growing on a tree trunk, while a woman in the background photographs some on fallen logs.

“Knowing what you have is really important for conservation,” Rockefeller says. “You can’t just say you have a rare mushroom with no name – that doesn’t work.

“If you can give it a name, then you can preserve it. And if people want to do chemical analyzes to try to make a new discovery based on these mushrooms, they need a name that they can use to communicate about the mushroom that they’re using. So taxonomy is really important for that reason.

A mushroom collection box

Most people will never have the opportunity to visit the rainforest and observe these diverse and elusive fungi. Rockefeller and Quark therefore shared their findings on social networks and app-based platforms, such as iNaturalist, Mushroom Observer, GenBank and MycoMap, to allow others to examine the intricate details – in some cases, before the species becomes extinct.

While navigating difficult Amazonian terrain, they aim to open a window into the immense potential of mushrooms and the importance of preserving irreplaceable ecosystems.

Rockefeller and Quark sit on a porch labeling samples from their mushroom collection
A labeled mushroom sample is added to the dehydrator
Top view of a man and woman taking samples from three plastic collection boxes filled with mushrooms on a wooden deck
Rockefeller looks at spores under a microscope while sitting at a table decorated with pink flowers in a vase

  • Back at base, the duo begins the process of sorting and labeling samples from their day’s work before putting them in the dehydrator. Once completed, the precious harvest will be transported to the National Herbarium in Quito.

“It’s hard to stay in the present moment these days – we always have a million things trying to get our attention,” Quark says. “But the work we do brings attention to the present moment and inspires others to do the same. »

She adds: “Mushrooms exist on the edge of life and death. They remind us that existence is fleeting, and that our human experience is also fleeting. Being there at the perfect moment to find a beautiful mushroom, you have to be present in all your senses to appreciate that moment when the mushroom is most intact.

Quark examines a mushroom on rainforest walls 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

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