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New mushroom species found on Berkeley's campus

"We can still find mushroom species that are new to science, right here on campus," Else Vellinga said.

By Brooks Hays
New mushroom species found on Berkeley's campus
The newest identified mushroom species on Berkeley's campus, Helvella dryophila. (UC Berkeley/Vellinga/Nguyen)

BERKELEY, Calif., Nov. 21 (UPI) -- The campus of the University of California Berkeley doesn't sit far from the epicenter of the Summer of Love. It still echoes with the sounds of psychedelia and Vietnam War protests. Suffice to say, the place is no stranger to mushrooms.

The latest mushroom of interest, however, inspired a paper in a scientific journal, not colorful visions. Helvella dryophila is the 12th mushroom species to be discovered on Berkeley's campus, and the first in more than 30 years. The mushroom, which researchers describe as a beautiful black "elfin saddle" associated with oak trees, was discovered in a grassy open expanse called Observatory Hill.

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Else Vellinga and Nhu Nguyen, who happened upon the new species, collected samples and confirmed its genetic distinctiveness in the lab. The analysis was conducted in Bruns Lab, and assisted by Tom Bruns, a professor in Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology.

Their findings were published this week in Mycologia. The paper includes details on a similar mushroom Vellinga and Nguyen discovered in nearby Salt Point State Park.

"Many mushroom species in California, and across North America, are mistakenly known by European names, but with the advent of DNA sequencing and more precise identification, it was discovered that our native mushrooms are entirely different," Nguyen said in a press release. "Once we figured out that the California elfin saddles were completely different from the European elfin saddles, we focused on the group and described two new species from California."

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"What was happening is that these mushrooms were parading around under another species' name," Vellinga added. "We can still find mushroom species that are new to science, right here on campus."

The researchers say the two new species are edible, but may be mildly poisonous if cooked improperly. In addition to introducing new species, the two scientists are also working to better catalogue North America's vast array of fungi species.

"Within the entire continent of North America there is not a single regional, state or local catalogue of the macrofungal species that presents a credible account of the species present and their distributions," Bruns said.

All the scientists involved in the recent study hope a new and more comprehensive catalogue will grow exponentially as citizen scientists hunt for new species. If they can find a new mushroom in their backyard, the scientists say, others surely can, too.

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