From the files – Jan ‘96
Mushroom lights [from DIY Perks, YouTube]
Twenty years ago when I was working for the Forest Health group at the New Zealand Forest Research Institute in Rotorua I received a letter from Frank Blom who lived in Awanui, Northland. Frank said:
In Nov, ’95 I noticed some 50 to 60 ‘glow worms’ on the bark of living Golden Willows in my place on the alluvial flats along the Awanui River.
They were clearly visible 2 to 3m away, but the source of the light could not be found by torchlight. A magnifying-glass however showed tiny mushrooms. By 25th Dec. there were only a few left and I brought one inside by breaking off a piece of bark.
Frank Blom’s notes
I wrote back that it was probably an undescribed species of Mycena and that I was not aware that any of the described New Zealand species were bioluminescent. The closest species, geographically, to New Zealand at that time was Mycena chlorophanus from Queensland.
More recently I came across a blog by Anna Chinn who blogged about a night-time excursion to Matawai, near Gisborne in search of glowing tree ferns. In fact, the glow came from a Mycena rotting the dead fronds skirting the trunk of Cyathea smithii. Not only does the mushroom glow but so too does the fungal hyphae growing through the dead frond.
Cyathea smithii [photo Leon Perrie, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa]
The Mycena in question goes by the working name of Mycena ‘Crystal Falls’ which is the location (Waipori/Crystal Falls, Otago) that it was collected from and first suspected to be a new species. It has been collected from the deep south to the far north. It has been found growing on the ferns Cyathea medullaris, Cyathea smithii, Blechnum sp., on the natives Ripogonum scandens and Metrosideros excelsa, and the exotic Salix fragilis.
Mycena ‘Crystal Falls’ [photo Jerry Cooper]
Fungi at War
In general bioluminescent fungi are not obvious in New Zealand. Ian Hood (1992) wrote:
Fresh Armillaria-decayed wood is bioluminescent and can be seen glowing eerily along bush-tracks on dark nights.
While Peter Buchanan (2006) said of Armillaria decay:
Decayed wood when fresh emits a weak light (bioluminescence), the glow visible in forests on dark nights.
John Ramsbottom in 1923 in A Handbook of the Larger British Fungi wrote about the luminosity of decaying wood. He said that it had been known from classical times and referred by Aristotle. He gave many examples of its use through time but only one really comes close to home when he talks about World War I:
In many places on the Western front during the war our troops found luminous wood useful for putting in the straps of their steel helmets and on the fore-sights of their rifles.
New Zealand soldiers in a front-line trench on the Somme, La Signy Farm, France, 6 April 1918. Sergeant Ormond Burton (Auckland Regiment’s official historian who became a prominent Second World War conscientious objector) stands on a firing step in the trench wall [photo Henry Armytage Sanders, Alexander Turnbull Library, ref no: 1/2-013092-G]
In the New Zealand context, Steven Brightwell (1993) wrote:
World War One soldiers nailed bits of fungus-infested wood to their helmets and bayonets. The phosphorescent fungi, glowing faintly in the dark, provided enough light to enable the soldiers to avoid collisions in the trenches, but not enough to make them targets for the enemy.
I haven’t been able to find any direct reference to this practice by New Zealand troops – if you have let me know where.
A good account of bioluminescence in fungi is given by Brian Perry at MykoWeb.
Brightwell, S 1993. Feasting on fungi. New Zealand Geographic 18 (June): 34-58
Buchanan, P 2006. Fungal Biodiversity. In Parsons, S., Blanchon, D., Buchanan, P., Clout, M., Galbraith, M., Weihong, J., Macdonald, J., Walker, M, Wass, R, 2006. Biology Aotearoa. Pearson Education New Zealand. ISBN 1 877268 00 3. Pp 72-83
Hood, I 1993. An illustrated guide to fungi on wood in New Zealand. Auckland University Press.
Here is Taylor Lockwood’s photo of Mycena ‘Crystal Falls’ that Jerry Cooper mentions in his comment below.
Mycena ‘Crystal Falls’ [photo Taylor Lockwood]