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 Identifying Australian Fungi - Getting Started

So how do you start to identify your first Australian fungus? There are three resources that you will find helpful:

  • Pictures in books
  • Descriptions in books
  • Using keys

Pictures in books

This is the easy way to start. If you have a good book with pictures (preferably a lot of pictures), then you can look and see whether the fungus matches any of the ones illustrated. Fungimap's Fungi Down Under is, naturally, a good start as is Bruce Fuhrer's Field Companion to Australian Fungi (now out of print, but used copies may be available) which has about 80 excellent photographs. View the Field Guide section of the Fungimap bookstore for other top resources. Fungi of Southern Australia by Neale Bougher and Katie Syme is also full of excellent illustrations.

Many local species are introduced (ie, not native to Australia), and so you may find them in books published overseas, such as Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain & Europe by Roger Phillips, which has great illustrations. 

Descriptions in books

Photographs in books, particularly colour, are expensive, and so they tend to feature only the most common or interesting species; therefore, a fungus that you have found may not be shown but often it will be described in words. For example here's a description of the Drumstick Fungus, Battaraea stevenii:

Peridium up to 60mm dia. and 20-30mm high, pulvinate or depressed globose, at the disc-like apex of the stipe; base white or off-white. The peridium has an outer layer, the exoperidium, which falls off in flakes or pieces, and an inner layer, the endoperidium, which opens around its 'equator' and usually falls away as one piece. Lamellae none. Stipe dun to brown, up to 35 cm long and about 1.5 cm in diameter, emerging from a non-gelatinous volva at its base. The surface of the stipe is covered with fine brown scales, which are eventually shed. The interior of the stipe is filled with silky fibres. Gleba pulverulent, with a capillitium of two types: single hyaline threads which are predominantly vertically arranged and elaters which are fusiform or cylindrical bodies with annular or spiral thickenings. Spores 5.6-8.8 x 4.6-7.6 µm globose to subglobose, on short pedicels, finely verrucose, very pale brown.

[details from C.A. Grgurinovic (1997) Larger Fungi of South Australia]

(What do all these words like gleba, stipe and pulverulent mean? Check out our Glossary.) Before you can decide whether this description matches your fungus, you will need to make a description of the fungus, which we will cover further in the next section.

Using keys

So, having looked at all the pictures in your books, and skimmed through the descriptions, but not finding your mushroom friend, what next? Well it's time to meet the dichotomous key. With at least 250,000 species of fungi in Australia, and about 20 mycologists, your fungus may not even have been described yet. What a key can do is at least get you to the fungus family or maybe even the genus. A key is a way of breaking up the fungal kingdom in a way that makes identification manageable.

Here's an example of a key:

      1a. Gills present 2
      1b. Gills absent; if a cap is present, then the underside with pores or spines 21
  2a. Spores white 3
  2b. Spores pink 6
  2c. Spores green 9
  2d. Spores brown 14
  2e. Spores black 20

Although they are called dichotomous keys, you can see that a key doesn't always just have two options. As you progress through the key, the options become more specific until you eventually arrive at a species name (you hope). Then you must compare the description and pictures (if any) of that species with your specimen. The fun really begins when they don't match.

In the next section, Describing a fungus, we will outline the main features you need to know for identifying an unknown fungus.

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