Once upon a time, there was a curious little mushroom that appeared in the forest for the first time. One day it was not there, and the next day it was. Fungi can do that, you know. Their reproductive bodies, which we call mushrooms, can grow so fast they seem to spring up overnight.
Anyhow, this mushroom has two names. Its scientific name is Dictyophora indusiata, but that is not a name for everyday use. Its common name is the veiled stinkhorn. Veiled refers to a lacelike covering that drapes down from its cap. Stinkhorn refers to the fact that the mushroom smells like rotten meat. The smell is actually a rather clever trick. Flies and other animals that eat flesh think the mushroom is rotten meat. They come to investigate. When they leave, they carry away the mushroom’s slimy green mass of spores on their feet. In that way the spores become new mushrooms in far-flung places within the forest. But clever or not, the little mushroom hated its common name. Why couldn’t it have a cool common name, like "the cloaked magician"? Every time it thought of its name, the little mushroom got sick and couldn’t eat. That, of course, was why it was so little.
Now mushrooms don’t eat like you or me. They have no mouths, like most members of the animal kingdom do. They have no energy-trapping chlorophyll, like most members of the plant kingdom do. Remember, they are members of the fungi kingdom. To get their energy, they must have food. They are food consumers. But how do they get this food? The answer is found in their mycelia. A mycelium, in case you don’t remember, is a tangled mat of threadlike strands that form the base of all mushrooms. The mycelium grows under leaves or dead wood. The mycelium of the veiled stinkhorn is partial to dead wood. Each of the thousands of threads has enzymes that break down the wood, that decompose it into simple molecules. The threads can then absorb the molecules and give the mushroom the food it needs.
It was very important for the veiled stinkhorn to eat. This was important not only for itself, but also for the entire forest community. In getting its food, the little mushroom is also decomposing organic materials. (In case you didn’t know, dead wood is an organic material.) By breaking down the wood, the veiled stinkhorn recycles mineral nutrients. It uses nutrients in the soil to break down the wood. After the wood decomposes, nutrients that were in the wood return to the soil. This is what decomposers do, and fungi are the most important decomposers in the forest.
It took a tragedy to convince the little mushroom to eat. And this is how it happened: Next to the veiled stinkhorn sat another kind of mushroom. It had a tall stalk and a small cap, and the veiled stinkhorn thought of it as the soldier mushroom. The soldier mushroom was a real eater. It decomposed and absorbed wood like crazy. It was always eating. The soldier mushroom tried to convince the little stinkhorn to eat.
"This forest is a paradise for wood decomposers like us," it would say. "We have so much wood here." They were living in a time shortly after a severe storm, when many tree branches had fallen to the ground. "We also have pleasant temperatures and plenty of water. The wood and the water are requirements for life for us. Here conditions are so good that new mushrooms are popping up everywhere." (That is where the expression "popping up like mushrooms" comes from.)
"Take advantage of our good fortune," the soldier mushroom coaxed. "If it continues, our mycelia could live for hundreds of years. If we lived in a place where conditions were not so agreeable, like a desert, we would die in a matter of months. You are truly a foolish little mushroom for not eating. I plan to eat and eat and make new mushrooms every year and live to be 200."
Unfortunately, one day the winds were especially strong in the forest. A large branch above them fell. It squashed the soldier mushroom and tore its mycelium out of the soil. The tangled mat of threads could not tolerate the aboveground conditions. The soldier mushroom soon died.
From that day on the veiled stinkhorn ate. It ate for itself. It ate for the forest community. It ate for the soldier mushroom that could no longer strive to live for 200 years. It ate, and it multiplied. Threadlike strands known as cords extended as far as ten meters through the soil to find more fresh logs to eat.
And that is how the veiled stinkhorn mushroom in El Yunque Forest decided to eat.
Killers in the Damp
Even though a tropical rainforest is paradise for fungi, dangers still lurk there. The mycelia might seem quite safe in their underground haven, but predators — insects and other animals — can still make their way into the wood and attack the threadlike strands. Nematode worms find them especially tasty, but in a fitting counterattack, some fungi in turn consume the nematodes that are consuming them! Above ground, flies find the mushrooms tasty. Also, veiled stinkhorn mushrooms are a culinary attraction no forest snail can pass up.