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Sri Lanka researchers amp up mushroom studies and find new species

  • Recent research on Sri Lanka’s mushrooms has resulted in the discovery of two species previously unknown to science — Termitomyces srilankensis and Candolleomyces ruhunensis — and the discovery of Crepidotus striatus, a mushroom previously thought endemic to China.
  • A tropical island in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is known for its rich diversity of fungi and mushrooms, but there was little research until now, making the group one of the least-studied organisms in the country.
  • As deforestation, habitat degradation and climate change threaten mushroom species, researchers urge the establishment of a national fungarium to preserve fungi specimens.
  • Edible wild mushrooms have been a part of Sri Lankans’ diets for centuries, but present generations have lost traditional knowledge about identifying non-poisonous mushrooms and instead rely on commercially cultivated mushrooms.

COLOMBO — In Lewis Carroll’s popular children’s book “Alice in Wonderland,” Alice finds a magical mushroom that could make her bigger or smaller. There are many references to wild mushrooms in many a fairytale, and these beautiful organisms have often been associated with magic. However, some recent discoveries of mushrooms in Sri Lanka were not the outcome of magic but the result of scientists at work.

Being open to working with amateurs who have an interest in mushrooms can also result in chance encounters. For example, a retired dentist from Kegalle in Sri Lanka’s Sabaragamuwa province, Hemachandra Kularatne is passionate about nature photography and has developed a special interest in wild mushrooms. On occasion, he camps out in the remote wilderness to photograph unusual looking mushrooms. In 2020, he found one that looked a little similar but different to a mushroom he had in his own home garden.

This mushroom’s stem was thinner than the edible mushroom’s, so Kularatne shared its photos with Aseni Ediriweera, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which studies mushrooms. By analyzing the DNA, Ediriweera determined it is a species new to science and named it Termitomyces srilankensis.

Like Kularatne, Gunadasa Pathirana, a tour guide at the Kanneliya Rainforest Reserve in the island’s south, is another amateur who is moved by the diversity of mushrooms he sees. Whenever he shoots a mushroom whose name he does not know, he forwards it to mushroom researchers for verification. It is from such a sample that Ediriweera ended up discovering Crepidotus striatus, a mushroom species that is a new record for Sri Lanka. Crepidotus striatus is a mushroom that was discovered in China as recently as 2020. Ediriweera’s findings of the same mushroom in Sri Lanka have resulted in Crepidotus striatus losing its status as endemic to China.

The new mushroom species Candolleomyces ruhunensis found on the University of Ruhuna premises is the first species of the Candolleomyces genus found in Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of Aseni Ediriweera.

New discoveries

“Resources limit scientists to comb every corner of the country in search of mushrooms. So, it is heartening to see at least a few having an interest in mushrooms and continuing to provide photographic evidence of species, the first step in identifying new species,” Ediriweera told Mongabay.

Mushrooms are the reproductive fruiting body (sporophore) of some fungi. They produce millions of microscopic spores in the gills or pores located under their caps and these seeds usually travel with the wind and settle on moist soil, decaying logs or leaf litter to build a new fungi colony. All fungi that produce visible fruiting bodies are called macrofungi.

“About 2,000 fungi species have been identified in Sri Lanka, but there can be as many as 25,000 species of fungi species on the island, considering it is located in a tropical region,” says Samantha Karunarathna, a professor at Qujing Normal University, China. There can be many more considering the fungi introduced along with food, plantations and ornamental plants, he added.

The new mushrooms species Termitomyces srilankensis has a symbiotic relationship with termites and is found growing on a termite hill in a home garden. Image courtesy of Hemachandra Kularathne.

The science of studying fungi is called mycology and the available information is widely dispersed, difficult to access and plagued by synonymy, as only the physical features have been considered in identifying mushrooms. But now there is DNA technology capable of accurately identifying mushrooms, Karunarathna said.

Karunarathne developed an interest in mushrooms during his school days, but he couldn’t follow mycology during his university years as there was no supervisor available for the study area. However, he pursued his interest at Mae Fah Luang University in Thailand, which is considered one of the best institutes to study mycology.

Witnessing how foreign collaboration can help raise knowledge in the least studied areas like fungi in other countries like Thailand, Karunarathna suggested Sri Lanka, too, should promote such study models. “But in Sri Lanka, such research faces a lot of barriers in the guise of preventing biopiracy that discourages even genuine attempts to study them,” Karunarathna told Mongabay.

Crepidotus striatus was first discovered in China as recently as 2020 and it has become a new record for Sri Lanka. Image courtesy of Gunadasa Pathirana.

A mix of edible and poisonous

While a few mushrooms can be poisonous, there are plenty of edible mushrooms Sri Lankans have been consuming for centuries. Decades ago, villagers had the knowledge to differentiate between edible and poisonous, but this traditional knowledge is now fast disappearing.

Meanwhile, Karunarathna is now working on a pictorial guide on edible mushrooms of Sri Lanka to fill an existing void and to educate the general public. “We should try to cultivate some of the local mushrooms to add variety to the food,” Karunarathna said.

Things are getting better for mycology studies in Sri Lanka as Ediriweera and the team under the guidance of Karunarathna conduct research on mushrooms gathered from different locations in the country’s wet, southern and western zones.

A red-hued mushroom, a rarity, captured inside the Kithulgala Forest Reserve. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

During this research Ediriweera discovered a second new species on the premises of the University of Ruhuna in southern Sri Lanka. The researchers named the new mushroom Candolleomyces ruhunensis in honor of the University of Ruhuna.

Sri Lanka’s wet zone is home to most fungi and mushrooms, but these habitats are threatened by deforestation. Climate change, too, is expected to impact sensitive fungi and mushrooms; hence it is important the country preserve its specimens for future generations, said Siril Wijesundara, a botanist at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies, also the former director general of the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens. In order to achieve this, Wijesundara proposed that Sri Lanka establish a national fungarium to collect the dried specimens and a culture collection for fungi.



Banner image of a bristly tropical cup mushroom (Cookeina tricholoma), which has an interesting orange color, courtesy of Aseni Ediriweera.

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