Lichenomphalia, like this genus name suggests, are a group of fungi that have paired with simple photosynthetic organisms that together create in intimate species union known as lichen. Most lichen are the union of algae and cup forming Ascomycete species, but today’s species is a fungal oddity representing the Basidiomycota. Basidiolichens are exceedingly more rare than other lichens, and just this year a new species of fungus from the family Hygrophoraceae was found in Chile, more than 3,000 meters above sea level.
he newly discovered basidiolichen was found by Pablo Sandoval-Leiva and his team in northern Chile. Up in the Andes Mountains, exists a beautiful mushroom in one of the most peculiar fungal habitats I’ve come across in the fungal literature. These high elevation species live in extremely saline environments, with some of the fruiting bodies emerging directly from salt crusts! Other L. altoandina mushrooms were found in the same salty habitat, but were fruiting from cushions of dead vegetation. This species can somehow tolerate extreme haline conditions which is an adaptation not researched enough in the higher fungi. The mechanisms for maintaining water balance in these environments, given that these organisms are made up of more than 90% of water, is an evolutionary marvel to say the least. With these species only just being discovered, more research needs to be conducted to find out how this mechanism works.
The unique ecosystems where these mushrooms are found are called Altiplano, which in Spanish translates to ‘high planes.’ The Altiplano make up some of the most arid places in Chile, which adds to this species bizarreness. Species that exist in these high-altitude regions are subjected to more intense radiation from the sun, so over time, fitness enhancing adaptations evolve. The fruiting bodies of L. altoandina have markedly more pigment than its closely related cousins, as well as thickened hyphal walls to combat the factors associated with desiccation present in the Altiplano.
Similar to mycorrhizal fungi, this lichenized agaric receives sugars from a photosynthetic organism, only here its partner is a single celled alga, rather than a multicellular, 50-ton tree. This species of fungus strictly pairs with algae from the genus Coccomyxa.In return for plant sugars, the fungus houses the algae, anchoring and protecting the vulnerable phototrophs from the elements. At the base of this fungal species, you will find globular structures called lichenized thalli, which are strands of hyphae that surround several photosynthetic algal cells.
The natural world is full of surprises. It’s simply astonishing to me that researchers found a new species of basidiolichen in one of the driest, saltiest places in South America. Some adaptations have been identified that allow Lichenomphalia altoandina to live in the exotic Altiplano ecosystems. Likely, some other mechanisms these species utilize to maintain their water balance are unknown to mycology. Today, we need to summon more mycological excitement so more studies throughout the world receive funding. Public interest drives more research than you think. If a new Chilean species that grows out of salt crusts in the Andes isn’t exciting to you, then I don’t know what mycological work would get your attention.