Polymorphic, yet functional.

People of Earth:

Of late, it has come to my attention that there is a major stumbling block on the road to fungo-taxonomic enlightenment. Fungi are extremely polymorphic. I don’t mean this in the sense that birders use it when they discuss the different colors of screech owls or even the behavior/plumage differences of different kinds of male Ruffs.

I mean polymorphism including wholesale deformity.

I mean bloodcurdling phenotype distortion that renders a mushroom nightmarish and nearly unrecognizabe.

And although these atypicalities are sometimes so dramatic that the mushroom is unidentifiable, it is a much more common truth that people are just bad at connecting the dots.

People are astonishingly-often unable to recognize that the fruitbody in front of them is atypical. Oftentimes this leads the hapless identifier to assign their find to a (sometimes wildly) different species, genus, family, or even phylum. In the words of Tucker: how embarassing.

Distortions are a widespread occurrence in the mushroom world. The problem (for those of you who aren’t familiar with fungi) lies in the fact that what we call mushrooms are simply sexual reproductive structures - spore production and release platforms: ephemeral, sacrificial. The main metabolic work of the fungus goes on underground in the fibers of the mycelium (which will likely remain undetectable to and deeply unparsable by human perception for many more decades ).

At least in my semi-informed personal mythology, the lack of investment in, and relaxed selective pressure on the fruitbodies has left them relatively free to vary.

And this plasticity of the only human-detectable artifact of a species (for those that even produce fruitbodies at all) continues to be a common snagging point for those attempting to progress on the road to taxon-lighentment.

Within one or two ventures in to the woods, you are nearly guaranteed to find a mushroom that is, for lack of a better phrase, f***ed up.

Sometimes this is pretty clearly due to parasitism, dryness, insect damage, etc.

But oftentimes, the mushroom is deformed in ways we don’t yet have a good explanation before. These abnormalities may be mutations (genetic), environmentally-induced, bacterial or viral.

For example, I don’t know what the problem was with this Gymnopus, but it didn’t really succeed at forming gills at all:

 Problem Gymnopus

I can’t even bring myself to call these kinds of atypical growth phenomenal. I should, for example, start keeping a list of all the species of fungi that I have not seen exhibiting sunburnt colors, bugbit surfaces and/or fundamentally crooked-ass or otherwise mangled shapes.  

It has come time to look the beast in the eye. To address the problem. To ferret out the root of confusion, the source of befuddlement.

I took the title of this post from Moore, Robson, and Trinci, who have more to say about this in their excellent 21st Century Guidebook to Fungi

To put it succinctly: ”Fungi are very tolerant of developmental imprecision.” This is less the case in other macro-taxa. Plants are also quite plastic, but fertile surfaces don’t often undergo berserk proliferation to the point of deformity, as occurred in the chanterelle below:


Chanterelle with too much hymenium 

And animals really rarely display the type of problems so often seen in mushrooms. Imagine a gull with four wings, or a katydid with branched legs. Such things would be unlikely to survive. Meanwhile, boletes like this inconceivable monstrosity have no problem accomplishing their evolutionary purpose:

Spider bolete 

The authors go on:

"The possibility has been discussed that fungal differentiation pathways exhibit what would be described as ‘fuzzy logic’ in cybernetic programming terms. Instead of viewing fungal cell differentiation as involving major (yes/no) ‘decisions’, which switch progress between alternative developmental pathways that lead inevitably to specific combinations of features, this idea suggests that the end point in fungal differentiation depends on the balance of a network of minor ‘approximations’. Fuzzy logic is an extension of conventional logic which can handle the concept of partial truth that is truth-values between ‘completely true’ and ‘completely false’. it is the logic of underlying modes of decision making that are approximate rather than exact, being able to handle uncertainty and vagueness, and has been applied to a wide variety of problems."

"Decision-making in the real world is characterised by the need to process incomplete, imprecise, vague, or uncertain information; the sort of information provided by error-prone sensors, inadequate feedback due to losses in transmission, excessive noise, etc."

I do not believe that mushrooms will save the world à la Stamets, but I do think they and their life histories may offer powerful and admirable metaphors to ponder as we construct our lives and the systems that are the context in which we lead them.

I invite you to re-read through the paragraph above in a different light, as if it were a New Year’s Resolution.

Consider viewing the many facets of our world in terms beyond ‘completely true’ and ‘completely false’… how you might arrange your brain to be better able to cope with uncertainty and vagueness… how you might learn to best deal with the information provided by error-prone sensors, inadequate feedback due to losses in transmission, excessive noise, and the like…

Maybe our society can grow into something better… an interlocking of desires… of people who are highly polymorphic, yet functional.

Peace be with you. (And also with you). Let us go now in peace, to love and to serve the soil and its inhabitants.

- C

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    Yet another reason why fungi are amazing.
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