Wed August 13, 2014

New Mushroom Species Discovered Near Fort Collins

On a rainy day in late June 2009, Jack Jones and his wife Nora were wandering around Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, when something strange caught their eye.

"We were walking along this path, and saw this thing, and it looked funny to us. It was certainly nothing we've ever seen before -- and we've been doing this for 35 years," recalled Jack Jones.

Jones, a consulting engineer, is a mushroom enthusiast, and his wife has a background in conservation and mushroom identification. The "funny" thing they saw was a mushroom, growing underneath a tree called mountain mahogany.

Not only did the fist-sized, white-and-tan mushroom look unlike any they had seen before, it was also growing in a place that most mushrooms don’t typically grow.

So they took some photos, marked it on their GPS, and alerted some mushroom professionals. The Joneses had gone to the natural area in preparation for an event called a BioBlitz, where amateurs and professionals survey a land parcel for plants, animals, and yes, mushrooms. A few days later, when the BioBlitz took place, mushroom experts collected the mushroom and took some pictures.

Eventually, the mushroom made its way to the Denver Botanic Gardens, where Vera Evenson, a mycologist, took charge.

"So I played around with it for a while and sent it to a specialist up in Utah,” Evenson said. “He said I got one just like it -- and we sent it to New York."

It turns out, the Utah mushroom and the Fort Collins mushroom were the only two like them found to date, as far as scientists know. Tim Baroni, the SUNY Cortland mycologist Evenson sent the mushroom to in New York, spent a few years working on tracking down the 'shroom's identity.

"He originally had it in [the genus] Smithiomyces, a rare fungus in tropical areas," said Jones. That would have made the mushroom pretty unusual, since Colorado and Utah are far from tropical locales.

But further analysis pushed the identification even further, and the Joneses recently learned they had discovered Cercopemyces crocodilians, a new genus and species of mushroom.

The name has something to do with how difficult the mushroom was to identify: Cercopes was a pair of Greek spirits who were known for being difficult to pin down.

"They were little characters who slipped away and were very mischievous," said the Botanic Garden's Evenson. Myces means mischievous, she added. The second name, the species name crocodilanous, refers to the mushroom's appearance, like crocodile skin.

The Jones have been back to the natural area many times since then, and have never seen the mushroom again -- not even this year, which is wet like 2009, when the new species was first discovered.

As to the all-important question that most people have about mushrooms: "consumption is not recommended," said Jones, although since only two of the mushrooms have ever been found in the wild, the chances of coming across one are slim.

A paper announcing the discovery was published in the July/August 2014 edition of the journal Mycologia.