Every Friday I get the opportunity to present to you one species of fungi, in hopes of cultivating an appreciation for the diverse, ever changing forest floor. On kind of an interesting note, with nearly 5.1 million species of fungi, it would take me just under 100,000 years to get through all of the fungal species. The truth is, there’s most likely more than 5.1 million species, and hypothetically speaking, by the time I got to the end, new species would have evolved and I probably would be doing this for an eternity. Well, it looks like I will never run out of things to talk about! Today, the spotlight is on a parasitic tooth fungus, Climacodon septentrionalis.
This fungus carries out its life cycle by dispersing to the wounds of beech, green ash and maple trees. A common syndrome I am finding with wound parasites is a large spore bearing surface. Fungi with large spore bearing surfaces produce enough spores that can find their way to an unfathomably small crack or scratch in the trees they specialize in. Although this species is grouped in the order Polyporales, it forms its spores not from inside pores but on tooth like appendages, hence its common name, the northern tooth fungus. The spores that are released and land on tree wounds soon germinate and the parasitic fungus goes right to work. This species infiltrates to the center of the tree and starts breaking down the heartwood.
Heartwood rot is an interesting process that quite literally hollows out trees. The xylem and phloem (a trees water and sugar transport system) remain intact in the outer layers within the tree. With the ability to access water and nutrients, the trees don’t directly succumb to the fungus. Now this relationship is not commensal, because the trees structural integrity is compromised, and trees experiencing heartwood rot are more likely to topple with harsh winds. Still, hollow trees can live for decades. There are hollow redwoods on the pacific coast that can be thousands of years old!
Climacodon septentrionalis is an amazingly beautiful and robust fungus that you can spot from afar, usually perched high on a living maple, ash or beech tree. Aesthetically the fruiting body of this species is most appealing, with the multiple toothed layers sitting upon each other. This design however did not evolve to please humans, for this morphology is an adaptation to maximize spore production, so the chances of its potential offspring can parasitize and metabolize the heartwood of other trees. Good thing I didn’t waited to mention this most charismatic species because waiting 100,000 years is far too long to not be aware of this pretty parasite.