SpongeBob mushroom discovered in forests of Borneo

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SpongeBob mushroom

Sponge­Bob mushroom

Sing it with us: What lives in the rain­for­est, under a tree? Spongi­forma squarepantsii, a new species of mush­room almost as strange as its car­toon namesake.

Its dis­cov­ery in the forests of Bor­neo, says San Fran­cisco State Uni­ver­sity researcher Den­nis Des­jardin, sug­gests that even some of the most charis­matic char­ac­ters in the fun­gal king­dom are yet to be identified.

Shaped like a sea sponge, S. squarepantsii was found in 2010 in the Lam­bir Hills in Sarawak, Malaysia. It is bright orange — although it can turn pur­ple when sprin­kled with a strong chem­i­cal base — and smells “vaguely fruity or strongly musty,” accord­ing to Des­jardin and col­leagues’ descrip­tion pub­lished in the jour­nal Mycologia.

Under a scan­ning elec­tron micro­scope, the spore-producing area of the fun­gus looks like a seafloor car­peted in tube sponges, which fur­ther con­vinced the researchers to name their find after the famous star of Nickelodeon’s Sponge­Bob SquarePants.

The new species is only one of two species in the Spongi­forma genus. The other species is found in cen­tral Thai­land, and dif­fers in color and odor. But close exam­i­na­tion of the fungi and genetic analy­sis revealed that the two were rel­a­tives liv­ing thou­sands of miles apart.

We expect that it has a wider range than these two areas,” said Des­jardin, a pro­fes­sor in ecol­ogy and evo­lu­tion in the SFSU Biol­ogy Depart­ment. “But per­haps we haven’t seen it in more places because we haven’t col­lected it yet in some of the under­ex­plored forests of the region.”

Des­jardin said Spongi­forma are related to a group of mush­rooms that includes the tasty porcini. But the genus sports an unusual look that is far from the expected cap and stem style.

It’s just like a sponge with these big hol­low holes,” he explained. “When it’s wet and moist and fresh, you can wring water out of it and it will spring back to its orig­i­nal size. Most mush­rooms don’t do that.”

Spongiforma’s ances­tors had a cap and stem, but these char­ac­ters have been lost over time — a com­mon occur­rence in fungi, Des­jardin noted.

The cap and stem design is an ele­gant evo­lu­tion­ary solu­tion to a fun­gal prob­lem. The stem lifts the fun­gus’ repro­duc­tive spores off the ground so that they can be dis­persed more eas­ily by wind and pass­ing ani­mals, while the cap pro­tects the spores from dry­ing out in their lofty but exposed position.

In its humid home, Spongi­forma has taken a dif­fer­ent approach to keep­ing its spores wet. “It’s become gelati­nous or rub­bery,” Des­jardin said. “Its adap­ta­tion is to revive very quickly if it dries out, by absorb­ing very small amounts of mois­ture from the air.”

S. squarepantsii now has another claim to fame: It joins the five per­cent of species in the vast and diverse King­dom Fungi that have been for­mally named. Researchers esti­mate that there may be any­where from 1.5 to 3 mil­lion fun­gal species.

Most of these are very cryp­tic, molds and lit­tle things, most of them are not mush­rooms,” Des­jardin said. But even mush­rooms — which are sort of like the big game of the fun­gal world — are mostly unknown.

We go to under­ex­plored forests around the world, and we spend months at a time col­lect­ing all the mush­rooms and focus­ing on var­i­ous groups,” Des­jardin said. “And when we do that type of work, on aver­age, any­where from 25 per­cent to 30 per­cent of the species are new to science.”

Des­jardin and his col­league Don Hemmes of the Uni­ver­sity of Hawaii at Hilo will describe five new white-spored species of mush­rooms from the native moun­tain forests of Hawaii in an upcom­ing issue of Mycologia.

The Hawai­ian species are among the diverse set of organ­isms found on the islands and nowhere else in the world. Des­jardin and his col­leagues are rac­ing to dis­cover and study the islands’ fungi before native forests suc­cumb to agri­cul­ture and grazing.

We don’t know what’s there, and that keeps us from truly under­stand­ing how these habi­tats func­tion,” Des­jardin said. “But we think that all this diver­sity is nec­es­sary to make the forests work the way they’re sup­posed to work.”

Spongi­forma squarepantsii, a new species of gas­teroid bolete from Bor­neo” was pub­lished online May 10 in Mycologia.

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