Did you know?
Fungi are in their own Kingdom, just like Plants and Animals. In fact, some people even think that Fungi are more like Animals than like Plants.
The mushroom or fruit-body that you see is only a small part of the organism, the part that is used for reproduction and which carries the spores (like seeds). Thousands of tiny threads, called mycelium (my-see-lee-um), spread throughout the area on which the mushroom is found growing and it is these threads that make up the biggest part of the fungus. It is handy to think of these like fruits you find on plants; the apple, for example, is just the part that carries the seeds to new locations so that new apple trees can grow, but the apple tree itself is the part of the plant that lasts from season to season, producing apples and growing bigger. The mycelium are like the apple tree, and the mushroom that we find growing up from the ground is like the apple. Unlike apple trees, however, individual mycelium are usually much too small to see with just our eyes. This is why we generally only know that a fungus is present in the ground or on a log when we see the fruit-body - the mushroom - pop up. But even when there are no mushrooms to find, the fungus is still there, growing bigger, doing important tasks in the ecosystem that help other plants and animals around it, and waiting until the time is right to try to reproduce again by sending up a mushroom.
People who study fungi are called mycologists, and the study of fungi is called mycology. Myco is from a Greek word that means "fungus" and -logy is from a Greek word that means "the study of."
Mycologists have discovered that fungi are very important parts of our environment- in fact, we need them to live on the earth! We use fungi every day – they are used to make bread and other fermented foods and drinks like beer, and we also use them as medicines and antibiotics such as penicillin. But more important even than this, many fungi help plants to grow by breaking down nutrients in the soil and passing them to the plant in exchange for other nutrients that in turn help the fungus grow. This is called a symbiotic relationship, when both organisms need the other to live and grow. Fungi also help to decay dead plants and other organic matter, and this can provide shelter for insects and food for other animals.
Fungi can be found in every place on Earth - on land and in water, and even in Antarctica! Different places on Earth have different types, or species, of fungi. Scientists and citizen-scientists are still finding out a lot about the fungi that grow in Australia. There is still a lot to discover, and you can help! There are still many fungi that are "unknown to science" which means that a mycologist has either not seen that particular fungus before, or has not been able to describe and name it yet.
When a fungus is described, it is given a scientific name. A scientific name has two parts. The first part tells you what genus it belongs to - this is kind of like your last name, telling others what group of people you share a common ancestry with. The second name tells you what species it is, and this part is often based on the person who discovered the fungus or the place in which it was discovered. Sometimes species are named after other important people to honour them.
In addition to a scientific name, many fungi also have common names. You can think of these a little like a nickname. A common name may be what people in the area where the fungus grows call it. For example, a "rose" is actually a common name. People call many different species of plants roses - the only way to know for sure which species you are talking about is to also know its scientific name. You can use a field guide to find out the scientific name (and sometimes also some of the common names) for a fungus.
Lastly, fungi are not evil or gross. Some are very pretty, and all of them are very important - even the ones that smell bad!
Remember, always be careful when handling fungi - never eat a mushroom that you find growing in the wild, and always wash your hands after you have been touching them.
Watch citizen-scientists like you find and record fungi in this episode (S2 Ep 156) of the popular Channel Ten kids' program, Scope.