Never too late: Fungi edition
January 8, 2021 6:01 AM   Subscribe

From The Guardian, an as-told-to profile of a Pamela come lately who has discovered 20 new species of fungi over the course of her second career. "At the age of 58, after decades of working as a teacher, Pamela Catcheside retrained as a researcher, transforming a lifelong passion into a career. ...After teaching I was looking forward to doing something on my own. Mycology lends itself quite well to being secluded: you go out, collect, bring things back, do a lot of research. I really enjoy that very much."
posted by Bella Donna (9 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Mycology is a young field, and recently quite good about embracing collaborators who may lack prior academic credentials. (Given the Australian context, Pamela likely knows it wasn’t always so for women.) For the newly fascinated, I can recommend the podcast Mushroom Hour, made of interviews by a fairly qualified neophyte with a very varied range of folks in the fungisphere. (Also: that “stonemaker” fungus she’s holding... is serendipitously relevant to a forgotten tuckahoe/pietra fungaia I’ve just been looking into - tftl!)
posted by progosk at 7:02 AM on January 8 [3 favorites]

Our local Asian store sells mushrooms labeled "Fun Guy" with a little mushroom man on the label. So it is never too late for "fun with Fungi"
posted by mermayd at 8:04 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

Thank you for sharing this! I thoroughly enjoyed it.
posted by Caxton1476 at 11:10 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]

I've been an amateur mycologist for over 20 years, and yes, it is kind of a new field. In my experience mycologists are more welcoming to amateurs than for example entomologists, but there are still some filters before you are embraced. The field is full of kids trying to get their hands on illegal stuff and wannabe poisoners.

If you want to get into it, it is not hard. Buy a good local mushroom guide, go out for walks, and take pictures and notes when you find something interesting. I mostly use my cellphone camera, it took a few tries to learn how to get the lighting and focus right, but the pictures turn out very good. For serious ID you will need to look at spores. Making spore prints is easy and there are tons of inexpensive USB microscopes good enough for this.

I hope the prices for doing molecular/DNA work keep going down as technology advances. I can't afford thousands of dollars to get definitive IDs, but I would be happy to pay $50 once in a while.

I find mushroom/ant hunting more fun than Pokemon Go.

Stories time, sorry.

In the last 3 years I have captured a bunch of different queen ants within walking distance of my house, and have had a high success rate 'breeding' them to at least a few hundred workers, up to tens of thousands. I've been able to identify most of them, or at least narrow it down to a couple of candidate species, but some were hard. I contacted the university, they have a very good myrmecologist there, to ask for help. At first the conversation was civil, but as soon as they figured out I have just and undergrad in an arts related field they became outright hostile. They accused me of lying about where I found one of the Camponotus queens (definitely in the genus, still unsure of the species) because only two species have been found and described by Proper Entomologist within 300 kilometers of my house.

I also found a probable Pogonomyrmex queen that produced different castes of workers, the petiole does not match any of the ants found in my area. I contacted them again asking for help with ID and offering to provide them with specimens or the whole live colony. The only response I got was something like 'Everyone wants a species named after themselves, it takes years of practice to be able to ID an ant, stop bothering us'.

Jut to be clear, I never claimed or suggested that I had found a new species, I was just asking for guidance on ant ID.

I've been taking pictures of interesting mushrooms and slime molds in my region and documenting the location and conditions. If they are really interesting I make cross sections, collect spores and microphotograph when possible, and try to culture some of them.

I send the pictures to a local mycology group and people have been very good helping with ID, and when something is really interesting they forward it to experts. No new species so far, but I have documented a few species outside the previously documented range.

One of my favorite characters in this world is a wealthy foreigner that comes down to México every few years and finances collection trips. He sends samples back to serious labs, and we all get the results a few months later. Like a 21st century R. Gordon Wasson (I just hope that unlike Wasson this guy is not being financed by the CIA's MKULTRA program).

A few years ago I ran a few experiments trying to grow a few different edible mushrooms, and a few unmentionables too, in new substrates and climatic conditions. Most of the literature comes from regions like the US Pacific Northwest, where one can find all kinds of wood chips and hay that are not available in my climate.

I managed to grow small Hericium erinaceus (Lion's Mane) in temperatures usually considered too hot, different Pleurotus (Oyster Mushrooms) in coconut and sugarcane waste, which are cheap around here, and some of the unmentionables in my own substrate mixes using local wood and grains. I even got tiny Laetiporus (Chicken of the Woods) to grow on a cellulose and lignine heavy substrate, but they suddenly rotted, more research needed.

I forwarded my 'research' to the local group and it was taken seriously in the case of the edibles, but I got a lot of pushback on the unmentionables, accused of lying and photoshopping pictures. I thought it was because of the stigma, but one of the researchers contacted me pseudonymously and let me know that there are only 2 reported cases of people managing to cultivate this species all the way to sporulation, and it was done in labs with very controlled conditions. It was hard to believe I did it in an unused shower stall. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I sent them dehydrated fruits and spore prints, and received some beautiful agar plates in return. I was informed that the eating did indeed provide proof, both of the type of mushroom I was claiming and of the meaning of life.

All my stuff is done pseudonymously and I am happier when I don't have to meet new people face to face. If you ever see a new drcurarensis ant or fungus, you'll know it was me.
posted by Dr. Curare at 12:49 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite characters in this world is a wealthy foreigner that comes down to México every few years and finances collection trips

In case that’s A Rockefeller you’re referencing, he’s among Darren’s MH interviewees (with a slew of tips about photography, diy science-grade documentation, and, if you’re that far, home-PCR set-ups).

Regarding home-sporulation in non-lab conditions... Beatrix Potter (yes, that Beatrix Potter...) got up to this in the mid-1800’s - and was similarly ostracized. Wasson mythology is vast, indeed, whereas it’s actually his wife whom I suspect being the more interesting thinker. Anyway: it’s a fertile universe in so many ways...
posted by progosk at 1:32 PM on January 8

(Oh, and: Laetiporus is reading this...)
posted by progosk at 1:34 PM on January 8

Wasson mythology is vast, indeed, whereas it’s actually his wife whom I suspect being the more interesting thinker.

Completely agree. But the MK-ULTRA subproject 58 stuff is not mythology as far as I know. Someone did FOIA requests and got documents that show that at least the June-July 1956 trip was financed by the CIA. The Wassons may or may not have known, it was disguised as a research grant, but one of the members of the expedition was a cleared contractor.

And thanks for the podcast, will be listening this week. One can always improve their science-grade documentation and photography. Home PCR would be great, but for some reason this year it has been very hard to get supplies.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:55 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]

BTW, one of the perks of running a not-quite professional lab at home is that sometimes spores escape and land on just the right place. This was a pleasant surprise that spontaneously showed up in the wheatgrass.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:59 PM on January 8

Almost forgot: in the same it’s-never-too-late-to-become-a-mycologist (or, indeed, a novelist) vein, a quick, heartfelt recommendation for Malesian-Norwegian anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s “The way through the woods - Of mushrooms and mourning”.
posted by progosk at 3:23 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]

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