Scientists seek to identify Alaska’s mystery mushrooms

Thousands of species have yet to be classified

A variety of mushrooms and other fungus gathered near Pipeline Lakes Trail. (Sept. 1, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Alaska is home to 112 species of mammal, 72 species of freshwater fish and 525 species of bird. But what about fungus? Are there 2,000 species? Four thousand? No one knows, says Kate Mohatt, Prince William Sound Zone ecologist for the Forest Service.

The North American Mycoflora Project has turned to crowdsourcing to identify these mystery fungi. Mushroom enthusiasts document and photograph new species and send dried specimens to professional mycologists. Mycota of Alaska is the state wing of the project.

“We have so much work to do,” Mohatt said. “It’s a continent-wide project aiming to identify every species of mushroom-producing fungi in North America, because, believe it or not, we’re not even close to having done that yet.”

Mohatt also recommended that amateur mycologists download iNaturalist, a free app for tracking and identifying species. The app offers a good alternative to the unreliable information found on mycological Facebook groups, she said.

Kate Mohatt, Forest Service Prince William Sound Zone ecologist. (Aug. 31, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times
Kate Mohatt, Forest Service Prince William Sound Zone ecologist. (Aug. 31, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

“On Facebook, people can make up random ‘common names’ left and right,” Mohatt said. “On iNaturalist, that’s not an option.”

It’s not necessary to identify a mushroom before posting it to iNaturalist — a clear photo is enough. The iNaturalist page for the 2019 Cordova Fungus Festival recorded 29 species, most of them logged by Mohatt. The most commonly sighted mushroom was the Amanita augusta, a species with a flecked, yellow-brown cap.

“A great way to start learning your mushrooms is to get out there and start collecting and photographing them,” Mohatt said. “If you don’t know what [a mushroom] is, that’s okay. There’s lots of people who love spending their free time looking through iNaturalist pages and putting names on things… You’re contributing to this citizen scientists’ crowdsourced diversity map of the world, for everything.”

For further help with identification, Mohatt recommends MatchMaker Mushrooms, a free program that categorizes species according to size, shape, texture and color.

After photographing a mushroom, the next step is preserving a specimen. The key to preserving mushrooms is to dehydrate them as quickly as possible, Mohatt said. A standard food dehydrator, set at a low temperature, is recommended. However, if a mushroom can’t be immediately dehydrated, it can be kept in a fridge for up to two days. A mushroom must be dehydrated until it’s crispy — if it’s still pliable, it’s not done, Mohatt said.

After drying, mushrooms should be stored in the freezer for five days to kill insects and other small organisms, she said.

“The goal is to preserve your mushroom for eternity,” Mohatt said. “These specimens are going to go into an herbarium at a university and be kept for hundreds of years.”

Even if a mushroom enthusiast is unable to preserve a specimen, photographs can help build a map of where the species is found.

“Those photos are contributing to science,” Mohatt said. “Those photos are providing really valuable and useful information about a really understudied group of organisms.”