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Amateur mushroom hunters help scientists: NPR

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Photographer Taylor Lockwood finds rare mushroom Hypocreopsis rhododendri in the United States, a discovery that delighted scientists and mushroom enthusiasts.

Taylor F. Lockwood


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Taylor F. Lockwood


Photographer Taylor Lockwood finds rare mushroom Hypocreopsis rhododendri in the United States, a discovery that delighted scientists and mushroom enthusiasts.

Taylor F. Lockwood

Let’s face it. If you are a mushroom scientist, you are hopelessly outnumbered.

Through an estimation, there are between 2.2 million and 3.8 million species of fungi – and over 90% of them are not listed.

But mycologists (as mushroom professionals are known) get a big boost from a surprisingly sophisticated world of hobbyists – both those who roam the forests observing bizarre species, as well as those who helped build. a community that connects amateurs to pros. .

Sometimes amateurs make amazing discoveries.

Consider the story of Taylor Lockwood, a 74-year-old mushroom enthusiast and professional photographer. This spring, we met in the rolling hills of West Virginia, where he crisscrosses the countryside in a van he has turned into an RV, photo studio and workshop.

“I’m in my Edison mode,” he said, pointing to the circuit boards and hardware he tinkered with.

A love affair with mushrooms

More on that in a minute, but the backstory first. Growing up, Lockwood spent the 1970s playing the electric violin and other instruments in western bands.

He also worked as a carpentry contractor. And in 1984, while living on the Mendocino Coast in California, he fell in love. To mushrooms.

“Outside my cabin were these beautiful mushrooms,” he says. “And it was like these mushrooms were looking at me and saying, ‘Taylor, come out and tell the world how beautiful we are.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ “

Lockwood bought photo equipment and got into mushroom photography. One of his images even appears on a US postage stamp. He sometimes says he would dig a hole next to a mushroom for his camera so he could get the right angle.

“I wanted to see them as a frog would,” he says.

His passion for mushroom photography has taken him across the world. And what he has found and photographed does not simply have artistic interest.

He, like many amateur mushroom hunters, works in symbiosis with mycologists in universities and government laboratories.

Taylor Lockwood invented his own elaborate equipment for photographing mushrooms in the wild.

Taylor F. Lockwood


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Taylor F. Lockwood


Taylor Lockwood invented his own elaborate equipment for photographing mushrooms in the wild.

Taylor F. Lockwood

“I could have hundreds or thousands of photos of things that are unnamed or unknown, or that could be known on another continent,” he says.

He made one of those memorable finds here in the Monongahela National Forest. A few years ago, he stumbled upon something he had never seen before: a mushroom that looked like tiny fingers wearing off-white gloves.

“Like most mushrooms, I considered it a natural beauty,” he says, “and that’s why I took a picture of it.”

A mushroom photo-sharing site that has become a scientific treasure

He posted this photo on a website called champignonoberver.org, where professional and amateur mushroom experts meet to disseminate information. The site is the brainchild of Nathan Wilson, another hobbyist who started the project in 2006.

“I always wanted to have something computer science to share my observations of fungi that I had made in my life,” he says. So he applied his software skills to the task.

“I told my friends about it, and they told their friends about it, and it was successful beyond my wildest dreams,” Wilson says. He says it is now home to millions of images from around the world. And these days he’s not alone – inaturaliste.org also catalogs millions of images of mushrooms, as well as recordings of many other branches of the tree of life.

These are not just pretty pictures. They constitute a precious scientific resource.

“There are a lot more amateurs than professionals,” Wilson says, “and professionals often end up trusting amateurs – or quote amateurs. “

“It’s not uncommon to find people who aren’t professionals, who are still world class in terms of their ability to identify groups and even publish species,” he says.

Expert amateurs like Taylor Lockwood provide not only images but data.

An eye for natural beauty leads to astonishing discovery

Her photo caught the attention of Amy Rossman, who for many years led research into the federal government’s voluminous mushroom collection in Beltsville, Maryland. She recognized the distinct form of this fungus but found only three records of its growth in the United States – two from Tennessee in 1888 and a third sample, from Maine, cataloged in 1915.

A sample of this rare mushroom was sent to a graduate student in Scotland who performed a DNA test on it and verified its identity, Hypocreopsis rhododendri, known in the UK, where it is rare, by the common name of ‘hazelnut gloves’.

Rossman says it’s not only rare, but he also seems to have a weird lifestyle. It does not grow directly on wood. It is a parasite that only lives on another species of fungus that forms a crust on rotten wood.

“But the crustal fungus itself isn’t that big, so you’ll ask yourself, how can you catch a parasite so much bigger than the thing it’s parasitizing?” Rossman said.

One hypothesis is that it basically uses the scab fungus as a straw and sucks nutrients through it. This is difficult to study because most of the time, fungi live hidden in the form of tiny threads called mycorrhizae that pass through their hosts.

Mushrooms “are not like plants,” she says. “They don’t appear at the same time each year, and sometimes it can take decades from when a fungus begins to bear fruit,” that is, when it produces a mushroom cap. Rossman says that’s why it’s so precious to have people like Taylor Lockwood rummage in the forest with a trained eye.

He gives me an idea of ​​what it is by taking me back to where he found the specimen a few years ago.

“Who knows where it might be at this point! He said, pacing an abundance of fallen and rotting branches in a swampy hollow festooned with ferns. But then his eye catches something interesting.

He leans in to observe a fallen branch up close, which has taken on a color not usually seen in wood.

“This blue-green is Chlorociborium, ” he says. “It’s not fruiting now, but it shows the blue-green color of the mushrooms here. And when there are little bodies of fruit coming out, it’s nice little blue-green ears.”

Lockwood was brought back to this location for his last ditch effort – and it goes back to the story of his wearable workshop and “Edison Mode”.

A few years ago, he decided that photos were not enough. He decided to make time-lapse videos of mushrooms.

“When I do time-lapse, you’ll find there’s a lot, a lot of life around the fungus – bugs and worms, and all kinds of things like that,” he says.

His art is not only to photograph a mushroom over time, but also to set his camera in motion to create otherworldly videos. One of his videos looks like this could be a release from the sci-fi classic Avatar. At a campsite, he sets up a curved track made of PVC plumbing pipes and places a motorized wooden camera platform on top.

“Everything is done by hand,” he says. He plugs the motor into some circuitry he built so the rig moves at a slower pace than a snail, while the camera is set to take a photo every six seconds.

This is a trial run to try out the new equipment he has built. It may be weeks, if not months, before he finds the perfect mushroom to film, but at 74 he is a patient man who is happy to be in the woods, making discoveries and make beautiful pictures.

“I love science, but I’m an artist at heart,” he says. “I love doing this and I love finding beautiful mushrooms.”

And sometimes beauty and science intersect.


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