What are they?
Fungi are an extremely diverse group of single or multicellular organisms that play many crucial roles in the ecosystem. Once thought to belong to the kingdom of plants, recent developments in phylogenetic studies have shown that they are in fact more closely related to animals as they share a common protist ancestor2. Multicellular fungi consists mainly of threadlike networks of cells known as hyphae that are typically hidden from view3. The “mushroom” that we commonly see in supermarkets is actually the fruiting body of the fungus that is used to disperse the spores during reproduction. A generalised overview of the fungal lifecycle and different growth forms can be found in the diagram below.
Just like the plants that supply Earth with the life-giving oxygen, Fungi also play critical roles in sustaining life on Earth. Fungi are heterotrophs. This means that, like you and me, they cannot make their own food and must consume other plants or animals for nutrients5. The key difference is that they consume decaying matter and release the essential nutrients back into the natural environment. Without them, important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus will remain locked up in the bodies of dead plants and animals and denied from future generations of organisms6. Furthermore, non-toxic species of fungi are important food sources for humans. Examples that we know and love include button mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms and even truffles!
Additionally, some fungi also form symbiotic relationships with plants and animals. This means that the fungal organism and its plant or animal partner perform complementary roles that are beneficial to the survival of each other. A cool example of this relationship can be found in the Fungi from the phylum Glomeromycota. Members of this phylum form tree-like structures known as arbuscular mycorrhizae within the roots of plants6. These structures allow the fungus to exchange mineral and organic nutrients with the plant host which enhances the survival of both organisms.
Enough of the Science Lesson, What About Our Local Fungi?
Our hot and humid climate provides ideal conditions for fungi to thrive. Although not well studied, it has been estimated that the Little Red Dot is home to more than 100 species8! These range from more common species that can be spotted along our roadsides during the wet season to extremely exotic and cool looking species that are found within our rich nature reserves.
The ring-like formation of the Parasol mushrooms sure brings to mind the fairy tales of childhood!
This particularly striking mushroom can be spotted around our local forests and gardens. The cap of the fruiting body produces a pungent and sticky sweet liquid to attract insects to aid in spore dispersal3.
The Common Puffball has a very interesting method of spore dispersal. While the spores of most mushrooms fall from gills on the underside of their caps, the puffball holds it’s spores within the fruiting body itself and explodes when disturbed by passing animals or falling branches3!
Other cool mushrooms that can be found include species that bio luminesce as they produce a molecule known as “luciferin”11. Scientists hypothesize that this is to attract insects at night for enhanced spore dispersal! This striking phenomenon can be seen in the picture below.
These are just a small sample of the myriad of interesting fungal species that can be found in Singapore. With the rainy season coming up, I urge you to keep an eye out for these little fellas as you go about your daily activities. However, do enjoy them from a distance and do not pick them as some of them might be toxic! Until next time!
Written by: Noel