Huge, rare mushroom found

2008-04-19 00:00

Wildlife circles are all abuzz about a giant mushroom — usually found in tropical areas in west Africa — that has been discovered, probably for the first time, in South Africa.

Kian Barker, who has been working as a tour guide in the St Lucia area for 11 years, came across the giant mushroom, which has a diameter of about 40 cm, in January.

What he initially thought was a plastic bag in the grass has now been identified by an Australian expert as the fruit of the fungus Macrocybe lobayensis.

Barker first spotted the mushroom about four kilometres outside St Lucia when he was taking tourists out on a night ride.

“I am interested in science, but I wasn’t exactly expecting to make a discovery on that evening,” said Barker, who took botany and zoology as majors for his B.Sc. and studied ichthyology (the science of fish) in his honours year.

Not having a measuring tape with him, he took a photograph of the mushroom and sent it to the conservationists at the iSimangaliso Wetlands Park authority (formerly the St Lucia Wetlands Park).

The mushroom had sprung up near some recently felled pine trees. Barker believes the fungus may have formed the fruit (the mushroom) in order to spread its spores after the trees were cut down.

Dr Marieka Gryzenhout of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute of the University of Pretoria says Macrocybe lobayensis is found in the grassy plains of tropical regions. Most of the fungi are, however, usually found in west Africa and as far as she knows, this is the first time this fungus has been seen this far south.

West Africans eat the mushroom, which according to recorded cases usually has a diameter of 20 cm.

Macrocybe lobayensis frequently forms a relationship with trees like the Termitomyces umkowaan (also known as the steak mushroom and sold by boys along the road near Ballito), which forms a relationship with termites and their antheaps.

The first time she saw the photo of Barker’s find, she had no idea what species it was. She e-mailed the picture to other professional and amateur fungus enthusiasts, causing quite a stir in the process. It was eventually identified by Dr Tom May of Australia’s national herbarium in Victoria.

“One is always hoping to be able to make a contribution to science. I was so excited …” said Barker, who also discovered an albino sea turtle earlier this year.

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