How the Fungi Helped Save the Forest

How the Fungi Helped Save the Forest

Once upon a time, ever so long ago, a tall tabonuco tree, an emerald-green parrot, and a small, pale veiled stinkhorn mushroom were talking to each other. The tree was a majestic member of the forest community. The parrot was quite handsome. The mushroom was, well, lowly. Actually, the conversation was mostly between the tree and the parrot. They did not pay much attention to the mushroom. It had to shout up to them to be heard.

The tree and the parrot were talking about strange and worrisome signs in the forest. These signs usually meant a bad storm was approaching, possibly a hurricane.

"If the winds are strong enough, I could lose all my leaves and many of my branches," fretted the tree.

"If the rain is hard enough, I could drown," bemoaned the parrot.

"Don’t worry," piped up the mushroom. "If a hurricane comes, I will help save the forest."

The tree and the parrot looked at the mushroom with expressions that would be interpreted in the 21st century as "yeah, right"; "sure you can"; "dream on"; "go fly a kite;" and so forth.

The hurricane came, and it was a bad one. The tree did, in fact, lose all its leaves and many of its branches. The parrot did not drown, but it was forced to leave the forest in search of food. The veiled stinkhorn lost its fruiting body (its stalk and cap). Yet its mycelium, a tangled mat of threadlike hyphae, remained safe inside the decaying wood that had been its home before the storm. 

When the hurricane was over, the stinkhorn looked around. Tons of new wood lay on the ground. It went into action, producing a mushroom, spores, and meters and meters of the root-like hyphae that form the mycelium. The spores and hyphae spread out and established themselves under the new wood. They in turn produced more mushrooms, hyphae, and spores that lived under and around additional pieces of wood. 

Stinkhorns, like all fungi, are decomposers. They get their nutrients from dead matter, such as the wood that fell during the hurricane. They do this by secreting chemicals into the wood to break it down into simple molecules. Once it is broken down, they absorb the wood. Animals do the opposite: they eat their food first, and then they digest it.

In decomposing the wood, the stinkhorns needed to use nitrogen found in the soil. With a single-minded intensity, they moved nitrogen and other nutrients from one piece of wood to another. They worked hard to decompose all the wood lying on the forest floor. As a result, nitrogen was soon in short supply in the soil.

The tall tabonuco tree began to suffer from a lack of important minerals like nitrogen in the soil. It looked down on the dozens of mushrooms surrounding its trunk, and whined, "Lowly stinkhorn, you said you would help save the forest if a hurricane hit. Instead, you are hoarding many of the soil nutrients for your own use. You are keeping them from us." 

"Be patient," piped up the stinkhorn. "Be patient."

Sure enough, after the wood decomposed, it returned important minerals and materials back into the soil. This was an important step in recycling forest resources. The stinkhorns enriched the soil, and a richer soil enriched the plants and trees growing in it. The balance of nature returned to the normal levels that had existed before the storm. The forest community endured and went on to flourish.

And that is how, in the long run, the fungi helped save the forest.