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KEEPING YOU IN TOUCH - YOUR FREE MONTHLY NEWSPAPER DELIVERED DOOR-TO-DOOR FOR 31 YEARS FUNGI – A BATTLE IN THE FOREST


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When you are walking in the woods, there is a whole battle raging beneath your feet that you're more than likely unaware of. You will look at the ground or at fallen trees and see fungi: the impressive dome of fly agaric perhaps, or a bracket on a dead branch but their passive nature is deceptive. What you are seeing, is simply the fruiting body of the fungus: the part which releases the spores; but this is merely the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of a sometimes-huge underground organism.


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We all know that fungi are essential in recycling dead organic matter - indeed some are critical to the survival of individual plant species and that land- based ecosystems would fail entirely without the nutrients they produce. What we probably don't realise is that fungi produce and actively throw around some really toxic chemical warfare in defence of their patch of land: they are not passive at all. If another fungus encroaches, they can secrete the fungal equivalent of nerve gas.


Turn over a rotting piece of bark and it is likely you'll find fine fungal threads beneath: these are scouting tendrils, looking for a good direction to spread out. In some species, if these come upon another unrelated (and believe it, they know) fungus they will actually grow around its tendrils, mechanically squeezing out nutrients to kill the


opponent and take over its patch. Other species will inject chemicals – fungicides into the other fungus and some quickly grow a dense wall of their own tendrils, like a fungal barbed wire to keep the other off their patch.


It's not only other fungi which may find themselves under attack: many species produce chemicals to kill bacteria – penicillin is produced by a fungus under stress. Others attack creatures which could be a threat (nematodes are a favoured victim) by using sticky or hooked protrusions which, once attached, liquidise the creature's insides. Even insects aren't safe: some fungi force their tendrils into the body of perhaps a grasshopper and grow inside it before the fruiting body bursts forth through the exoskeleton and releases its spores; other types release chemicals into the insect's brain, making it act in a way that benefits the fungus, such as climbing to a high place, enabling the fungus to burst out and spread spores far and wide.


It's a rather gory thought, when you consider how passive those woodland fungi seem. It's simply competition in nature, in just the same way that foxes eat rabbits and birds fight over territory. I find it rather fascinating that these silent forest dwellers are perhaps not so dissimilar from animals in many ways!


ISSUE 430 | 18 OCTOBER 2018 | 14


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