Tips for identifying fungi.
Observe the shape, colour, texture, even smell.
Photograph what you see.
Find the matching fungal group.
Explore here for more clues…. and finally, ask us.
What you see popping up out of the ground or on the side of a log is most likely to be the fruit-body – the part of the fungus that carries and disperses the spores for reproduction. The rest of the fungus remains under the surface – a fine hair-like, usually white, network of hyphae called the mycelium.
Fungi are notoriously difficult to identify because numerous species can look very similar. It is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 250,000 of species of fungi in Australia but, so far, just 11,846 have been described. Some species can only be identified by looking through a microscope at the patterns on their tiny spores or the cells in their gills.
The first step in identifying a fungus is careful observation – shape, size, colour, context. You also need to use other senses. Fungi can have a distinctive smell. Some are leathery, can be sticky, smooth or rough, others are fragile and dissolve within a day.
Some will be in groups, others solitary. Some will be attached to dead wood or grow amongst grass.
Fungi that can be seen by the naked eye are often described as macrofungi. Microfungi can only be observed under a microscope.
It can be helpful to use a small magnifying glass so you can see surface texture, the edge of gills and how they connect with the stipe. A ring around the stipe sometimes remains from where the pileus once joined it. A small mirror can be handy to see these details under the pileus.
Not all fungi are shaped like ‘mushrooms’ with a rounded pileus gills and a stipe. Puffballs, corals, jellies, stinkhorns, brackets and cups are enormously diverse in colour, form and the methods by which they disperse their spores.
Fruit-bodies can also look very different depending on the weather and their stage of maturity.
And of course the more familiar you are with fungi, the better you will be at knowing what it is.
Here are our tips:
Taking good clear photographs to help with id:
- Take shots from above – a 45 degree angle is best – and from the side, as close to the ground as possible so you can see underneath
- Come in close enough to fill the frame with the fungus and to clearly see the gills, pileus and stipe.
- Photograph with an item like a coin for size comparison or measure height and pileus width
- If possible photograph a group which includes fruit-bodies that are both young and mature to show how the fruit body changes with age
- Conditions can be quite dark so a small tripod with splayed legs or beanbag can be useful for longer exposures. Self timers and remote releases likewise can avoid images blurred by camera shake.
- Built in flash devices are generally too harsh. Reflectors are better.
- Use a macro lens – 100mm allows you to photograph further away which increases depth of field (the area in focus).
- Some fungi have glistening, shiny surfaces and you may need a polarising filter in some lights.
- Look carefully at what’s in the frame and position your camera away from or move objects that could be distracting like twigs but make sure you don’t clear the view of the substrate on which the fungi grows
Go to Major fungal groups to see what group your fungus belongs in. Refine your search by first looking at our online Fungi Down Under. It has photographs and descriptions of 100 of the most distinctive and common fungi in Australia, arranged in major groups:
- Chanterelles, Boletes, Polypores, Toothed
- Leathers, Corals, Jellies, Rusts, Earthstars, Stalked Puffballs
- Stinkhorns, Beech Orange, Clubs, Cups, Crusts, Discs, Morels, Pins
More advanced id
For a detailed description of your fungus you may have to lift it – a small knife is good – to ensure you collect the base of the stipe and can see its hyphae. (You need permission from the landowner for this.) It may also be helpful to dissect the pileus and stipe to reveal the way the gills are attached to the stipe and if the fungus changes colour (stains) or bleeds a milky substance when its flesh is exposed to air.
If your fungus belongs in the Agarics group these are the questions to answer and you may need a magnifying glass or hand lens for this.
- Describe the shape, size, colour, thickness and surface texture of the pileus
- What colour are the gills, and how are they attached to the stipe? (see here for various arrangements) Are the gills dense or sparsely spaced, are they forked, are they jagged or smooth on the edge?
- What is the colour and surface texture of the stipe? Does it have a cup-like volva at the base or a ring? Does it attach centrally to the pileus, or off to one side? What is its length and thickness and is it wider at the base?
- What is the colour of the spores? You may get an idea by looking along the gills or at the ring but it’s better to take a spore print. See here for how to do this.
- Does the stipe or the pileus discolour when broken? Does it exude latex, is it fibrous?
- What does it smell like?
- Describe the environment – the substrate (woodchip mulch, leaf litter, sand, grass etc) is it shaded by trees, is the vegetation indigenous, is it forest or parkland? When did it appear, was it after rain?
Resources, keys and field guides:
The Royal Botanic Gardens/Fungimap online FunKey app here covers agarics and is worth a try.
The Queensland Mycological Society has keys for Agaricus, Auricularia, Bird’s Nest Fungi, Ganoderma, Pisolithus, Ramaria, Stinkhorns and Suillus.
And since many fungi in Australia are found worldwide, it’s also worth looking at international keys.
And, finally, how we can help
Our volunteer citizen scientist experts may be able to assist if you send us good clear photographs and your detailed observation sheet. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Remember, fungi in a natural environment should not be damaged or removed by you unless you have landowner permission.