The Indiana Academy of Science is a badge of pride for our state. Since 1885, it has been the professional membership organization for Indiana scientists, “dedicated to promoting scientific research and diffusing scientific information; to encouraging communication and cooperation among scientists and to improving education in the sciences.”
I’m a member and try to read what I can from the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science. Since it covers every scientific discipline, there is plenty that I don’t really understand, or isn’t relevant to my discipline, but I’d do good to read a little more broadly.
I was intrigued by an article in Volume 126, #1 that just hit my mailbox, Checklist of Indiana Fungi 1: Macrofungi by Purdue researcher Scott Bates and his students (you’ll need to become a member to find the text). I don’t know much about the organisms in Kingdom Eumycota (Fungi), other than they are ubiquitous, species-diverse, and critically important to nutrient cycling and ecosystem function. Some species called mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic with plants. They grow into the plants themselves (even into their very cells) and help transport nutrients from the soil to the plant in exchange for sugars. They exert a huge influence on soil ecology, a revelation now becoming appreciated at a public level.
There are estimated to be 1.5-5.1 million species of fungi, of which only 100,000 have been formally described by science. There may be around 18,000 species in Indiana, of which we know only 3,000.
In a three-part series, Bates and his team first tackled just the macrofungi, which include bracket fungi, mushrooms, and puffballs (molds, rusts, and lichens will have to wait). They examined 19,000 specimen records from 72 public collections dating back to 1804. Mycology is certainly a field for the patient and systematic!
They published a list of 1,410 species of macrofungi with official records in Indiana, 54% of which (757) being officially noted for the first time. The checklist alone spans 17 double-columned pages!
Ok, it’s time for another picture. Here is a fungus I found on a rotting downed tree next to a wetland on our property. I have no clue what species it is, but I do know that it is recycling the carbon in the tree back into the web of life for re-use.
We don’t need to know everything about every species in order to know that they all play a role.
Back to Bates and company. Their work is important because it highlights that we are still in our infancy of describing major parts of the tree of life on this planet. We’ve discovered and documented essentially every species of bird and mammal in North America (though some life histories are still mysterious to us). But when it comes to small organisms – bacteria, fungi, even insects – the unseen is still largely the unknown.
The authors also noted that “many species of fungi absent from our Indiana checklists likely represent taxa already known to science.” Bates established such a new Indiana record simply by walking out of the lab and around the campus of Purdue University Northwest! Not only are there plenty of “missing” Indiana records right under our nose, “it is equally likely that a number of fungal species new to science await discovery in the state. These facts highlight the great need for continued mycological research within the state.”
Given our absolute and utter dependence on this thin layer of life hurtling through the void of space, such basic research is as urgent as ever.
The good news is that I will never run out of work to do as long as I live!