At the Apgar Education Center on an overcast Friday morning in early June, a dry-erase board on the porch advertised “Mushroom BioBlitz” in hand-drawn bubble letters decorated with cartoon toadstools.
Inside the warm room, about 25 people in fleece outerwear and hiking boots, mostly local artists and outdoor enthusiasts, had gathered.
Crown of the Continent Learning Research Center staff explained the game plan for Glacier National Park’s inaugurual Mushroom BioBlitz. We’d be divided into a handful of small groups and deployed to various locations throughout the Park, using the iNaturalist app to photograph and document fungi living in the Park.
There are probably more than 1,000 fungus species in the Park, and only a scant couple hundred of them have been named. There’s always the potential for new species to be discovered, and that’s what the BioBlitz is designed to help with.
Identification cards for each mushroom sample included lines for the date, the sample number and location, and a description of the fungus’s surroundings.
We were warned that collecting mushrooms from the Park is illegal except in the pursuit of official scientific inquiry.
The groups dispersed, and I drove to my assigned location, Fish Creek campground. With camera in hand and bear spray handy, I followed the group.
I don’t know what the other research spots boasted in terms of mushroom populations, but the Fish Creek area seemed a little sparse. The beargrass and ladies’ slipper orchids blooming everywhere seemed to be trying to steal the show from the small mushrooms near their roots.
Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing. Cathy Cripps, a mycologist from Montana State University, succeeded in rapidly filling her sample case, and the citizen scientists seemed to be finding specimens frequently as well. The most unusual fungus was a slime mold slowly oozing among pine needles, several yards off trail.
Back at the West Glacier Community Center, experts spent the afternoon identifying all the samples collected and trying to assign them to categories in the iNaturalist app. About 140 different species were collected, including the hedgehog scaleycap which had never before been recorded in Montana.
The data from BioBlitzes helps provide more life history information about lesser-known organisms in the Park.
Glacier’s website notes that fungi are essential to the ecosystem, accomplishing most of the decay of organic matter in northern forests where it’s too cold for bacterial action. Fungi grow from soil like plants, but are structurally and reproductively very different. They are unable to photosynthesize, so they survive on dead material or by parasitizing living organisms.
Fungus mycelia, the underground rootlets, form thick webs over the roots of seed plants and help them gather nutrients and water, the Park website explains. “Most conifer trees - pines, spruces, cedars, hemlocks, firs - could not live without fungi. In the ancient forest of the McDonald Valley, the amount of fungi rootlets in the soil likely approaches two tons per acre.”
Like most people, I’m partial to animals, but it seems fungi are severely underrated.