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Fungi at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary

A protected cloud forest lies just 20 kilometers north of Dunedin. It is here that around 300 hectares of regenerating forest make up the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. A pest-exclusion metal mesh fence borders the land and offers visitors access via airlock-style double gates. 

This micro-habitat is an ecological island with perpetual low-level canopy cloud coverage. The scene reminds me of Jurassic Park and inside the gate lies a preserved prehistoric land; a trip back in time. The Maori call this place Te Korowai o Mihiwaka.

Fungi enthusiasts and friends Cath Smith, Benny CK Chia and I went to Orokonui with the intention of getting to the tallest tree quickly. Back at the beginning of June, during peak mushroom season, we witnessed the most amount of fungi we’d ever seen in our lives! Around the tallest tree is a rainbow of colorful mushrooms. A jackpot of thousands of purple, red, blue, and green mushrooms cover the forest floor.

orokonui ecosanctuary entrance
Looking out upon the Orokonui Ecosanctuary from the visitor center.

But along the way we inevitably became distracted…how almost all fungal forays go! We stopped to inspect the oddities nature provided. Some species we would later learn had only been recorded once, or only a handful of times on iNaturalist

Photographing fungi isn’t always easy, and involves a bit of imaginative route planning around obstacles, and getting into weird positions to get the right shot. As Cath says, “this is bush pilates!”. Standing at the base of New Zealand’s tallest tree (a Eucalyptus regnans measuring 80 meters); our heads craned up, stretching, as most of the time on the way there was spent looking down scanning the understory. 

Observing the macro-verse at the ecosanctuary is an alluring and addictive thing because most of what grows here cannot be found anywhere else in the country. Below are some of the highlights from our foray.

Cortinarius aff. alboviolaceus

The specific epithet “albo” comes from albino, meaning white and “violaceus”, meaning violet.

Cortinarius aff. alboviolaceus
Cortinarius aff. alboviolaceus

This undescribed species is purple and related to Cortinarius alboviolaceus. It would be the first time coming across “aff.” in a taxonomical naming of a species. Aff. is short for the Latin word affinis, which literally means related to or neighboring and, in taxonomy, usually indicates having af-finity with but not identity with.

The distinctive mauve coloring of Cortinarius aff. alboviolaceus has earned it the common name – “Silvery Violet Webcap”. In contrast, C. alboviolaceus found in N. America, Britain, and Europe is given the common name – “Pearly Webcap”.

A unique characteristic are beads of sweat on the stipe, also known as guttation.

Cortinarius aff. alboviolaceus
Cortinarius aff. alboviolaceus with guttation in the stipes
Photo Credit: Cath Smith

Why do mushrooms weep? Guttation formation in fungi is important for visual identification, but the process causing it is unknown. However, due to its association with stages of rapid growth in the life cycle of fungi, it has been hypothesized that during rapid metabolism excess water produced by respiration is exuded.

Cortinarius kula

The most abundant mushroom growing, this bright red mushroom is hard to miss. The specific epithet “kula” is an aboriginal word that means “blood” and in Australia, aboriginals would extract the red pigment to dye fabrics. 

Cortinarius kula
Cortinarius kula
Photo Credit: Cath Smith

A research article published in 2010 has shown that both Cortinarius kula and Cortinarius austrovenetus contain medicinal compounds used to treat E. coli, Staph infections (spread by touching infected blood or body fluids, most often by contaminated hands), and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which lead to hospital-acquired infections such as ventilator-associated pneumonia and various sepsis syndromes.  

“Fungi share with animals common infective agents such as Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus and therefore have the potential to produce metabolites with pharmacological activity in humans.”

Around the base of towering Eucalyptus, red capped, yellowish stiped Cortinarius kula poked up everywhere amongst the leaf litter. It’s the most prolific mushroom at the ecosanctuary, so much so that when searching for other species of mushroom you must look past all the attention-grabbing red caps poking up.

Cortinarius austrovenetus / Green Skinhead

The specific epithet is derived from the Latin auster meaning southern, Australasian, and venetus meaning sea-coloured.

The common name for this species hit the nail on the head and would be one of the greenest mushrooms on the track.

The reason behind the common name Green “Skinhead” is that the species was originally put under the subgenus Dermocybe – derm-: skin, cybe-: head, and was later moved to Genus Cortinarius.

The first trip out to the ecosanctuary, near the tallest tree a trio of Green Skinheads were found and the caps were a more aqua-marine green. The following month and the caps were a more developed, richer, verdant green that reminded me of a soldier’s helmet.

Before reaching the Eucalyptus, just past a bridge where the Orokonui Creek cuts through the forest, Benny observed a rotting log off the side of the track. Upon closer observation we were all confused. What were we looking at? Was it a plant, moss, algae, or a fungi? The canopy cover blocked out most light and the color of small bulbous growths sticking up appeared at first black, but with a bit of light they revealed themselves to be a dark green.

Green Pinball / Chlorovibrissea phialophora

The genes related to this relatively new genus are most similar to species within the genus VibrisseaChlorovibrissea quite literally means green Vibrissea and is still nested within the same Vibrisseaceae family.

Chlorovibrissa phialophora
Chlorovibrissa phialophora / Green Pinball
Photo Credit: Cath Smith

The Green Pinball is an exotic aquatic fungus that prefers water-logged sticks and twigs. The species has filiform spores that use water currents to wrap around woody debris, instead of being carried off via wind dispersal.

Chlorovibrissa phialophora / Green Pinball
Chlorovibrissa phialophora / Green Pinball
Photo Credit: Cath Smith

There is an excellent article by the Forest Floor Narrative with more information: Fungi Friday; an exotic aquatic fungus from New Zealand.

Excited about this rare find, and the fact that we were even able to detect it, another popular mushroom that stared back at us from atop were the Elegant Blue Webcaps.

Cortinarius rotundisporus / Elegant Blue Webcap

Its specific name is derived from the Latin rotundus “round”, and Ancient Greek spora “seed”

Although a common species found amongst Eucalyptus, because blue isn’t a common color in mushrooms, and given that the caps look like eyes staring back, they’re hard to ignore. I have come across many C. rotundisporus in the past, but the Orokonui Ecosanctuary had the most I’d ever seen.

At the right time, the perfect specimen will reveal itself to have beautiful and elegant blue coloring with an orange to yellow egg-yolk in the center of the cap. The same color can be found midway up the stipe, a point where the veil breaks and spores condense to leave a ring.

“Mushrooms reveal themselves when I think about them. It’s a serendipitous encounter and I feel like a mushroom whisperer!”, I say to the others. We go through our fungi bucketlist and concentrate on willing them into being, like some kind of human-to-mycelial communication – tapping into the Wood Wide Web. Cath mentions wanting to see purple coral. We both agree that this is up there on our lists, as well.

An exclamation of joy and excitement suddenly and Cath has spotted the purple coral. What are the chances!?

Violet Coral Fungus / Clavaria zollingeri

It was named after Swiss botanist Heinrich Zollinger (1818 – 1859), who researched the genus Clavaria.

The mushroom is commonly known as the “violet coral”, or the “magenta coral”.

Clavaria zollingeri
Clavaria zollingeri
Clavaria zollingeri
Clavaria zollingeri

A closer look and the tips of the coral appear pink and like little hands reaching up grabbing our attention.

A type of anthropomorphism found in fungi can make the imagination run wild. It was on a rotten ponga that we spotted white teeth hanging like icicles from small fuzzy white growths.

READ: A Menacing Look – Teeth-bearing Fungi

Beenakia dacostae / Beenak Long Tooth

Beenakia dacostae or the “Beenak Long Tooth” is a rare species found on tree fern trunks and on forest litter in wet forests of SE Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand.

Beenakia dacostae
Beenakia dacostae / Beenack Long Tooth
Photo Credit: Cath Smith

Often found in dry forest debris under rotting logs, it has small, decurrent, soft “teeth” instead of gills that extend partway down the stem.

The species has a soft cream to ochre-colored cap, gets up to 25 mm, and is often conjoined. Beenakia has a white spore print and is microscopically related to coral fungus Ramaria sp.

Currently, there are seven known species of Beenakia.

Cortinarius peraurantiacus

Sometimes species just poke out. Such was the case when we decided to take a breather and Cath showed me a group of orange pouches half exposed near the base of a crown fern. I have a special interest in secotioid species and truffle-like fungi and split the pouch in half to show the inside.

READ: Gasteroid & Pouch Fungus

Already finding some pretty unique, never-before seen fungi I came across a branch that was covered in eye-lash rimmed discs. Thinking initially these were some eye-lash cup-related species, I saw that they had small stipes.

Hymenotorrendiella clelandii / Fringed Cup Fungus

Not knowing what these were I asked around and Shirley Kerr pointed me to Genus Hymenotorrendiella. A quick Google Search and I found a species that looked exactly like the ones found at the ecosanctuary which also happened to be recorded in Tasmania. There had only been one record on iNaturalist, and this would be the second in New Zealand.

Hymenotorrendiella clelandii
Hymenotorrendiella clelandii

These are but a fraction of what we found in the months of June and July. There are plenty of species yet to be recorded in New Zealand and this fact adds to the excitement of exploring the macro world of fungi. It is places like the Orokonui Ecosanctuary that offer a preserved trip to the past for rediscovery.

References:

Beattie, Karren D., et al. “Antibacterial Metabolites from Australian Macrofungi from the Genus Cortinarius.” Phytochemistry, vol. 71, no. 8-9, 2010, pp. 948–955., doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2010.03.016.

Parmasto, Erast, and Andrus Voitk. Why Do Mushrooms Weep?, 2010, www.fungimag.com/fall-2010-articles/mushroom-weepLR.pdf.

Pinzone, Philip. “Fungi Friday; an Exotic Aquatic Fungus from New Zealand.” Forest Floor Narrative, Forest Floor Narrative, 6 July 2018, www.forestfloornarrative.com/blog/2018/7/6/fungi-friday-an-exotic-aquatic-fungus-from-new-zealand.

“What Does Te Korowai o Waiheke Mean?” Te Korowai o Waiheke, tekorowaiowaiheke.org/te-korowai-o-waiheke.

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Joseph Pallantehttps://nzfungi.com
An avid traveller, Joe enjoys spending time exploring the New Zealand countryside. In his spare time, he travels around in his campervan, writes about nature, and takes photos of fungi.

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