It is crazy for me, realizing that exactly one year ago today, I started up Forest Floor Narrative. In my first ever blog post, I wrote about a smaller, red, peculiar looking fungus in the genus Sarcoscypha. In that post, I mention how the fruiting of these organisms really signifies the start of the spring mushrooming season in the temperate mixed forest where I reside. I thought it would be fitting to feature this species on this special day, the one-year anniversary of FFN. Without further ado, I present to you the scarlet elf cup.
There are several, genetically similar species of these red cup fungi found all over temperate ecosystems. They all really do look extremely similar so, the only true way to distinguish them is to look at microscopic features. By analyzing the structure of their spores and the hairs located outside of the cup, you can properly identify these unique species. The scarlet elf cup that fruits in my neck of the woods is Sarcoscypha austriaca. It looks strikingly similar to S. coccinea but has spores with flattened ends and contain several oil droplets.
In 2011, the antioxidant properties of Sarcoscypha austriaca were analyzed. Although this species plays an important role of releasing nutrients from woody debris in early spring, which aids the fitness of the spring ephemerals, this paper found that S. austriaca can actually be utilized to benefit human health. This study by Piljac-Žegarac et al. 2011looked into the different properties of fungi grown commercially and in the authors native Croatian temperate forests. A solution with the ratio of 50 milligrams of pulverized S. austriaca to one milliliter of water had a 90% free radicle scavenging activity.
One of the most interesting features of these Sarcoscypha species is how they release their spores. Actually, it is not just Sarcoscyphaspecies, but many fruiting bodies with ascospores have this intriguing mechanism of spore release. You may note, that unlike downward oriented gilled and pored fungi that have their individual spores initially fall as gravity takes ahold, the spore forming surfaces of these red cup fungi are positioned upward. These species along with their relatives have evolved a drastically different spore release mechanism that you can actually hear.
We can thank turgor pressure for the explosive spore release we see in Sarcoscypha species. The sac that holds its spores called the ascus absorbs water in its early development. Inside the ascus, a large vacuole swells with ascus sap. With increasing early spring temperatures, the contents within the vacuole convert the polysaccharides into osmolytes. As a result, these vacuoles increase with osmotic potential, and takes in even more water. The turgor pressure reaches its maximum, and all at once, millions of spores are rapidly released past the boundary layer of the forest floor. This mechanism is aptly named ‘puffing’ and is seen throughout the Ascomycota.
If you do find these fungi on your next hike, you can induce puffing by blowing on the spore bearing surface. This rapidly changes the temperature of the cup, initiating this big bang sexual reproductive event. The momentum of all the spores moving at once actually allows these species to form their own wind current. This simultaneous event greatly enhances spore dispersal, allowing spores to travel further from the forest floor, to more intense wind currents. This just goes to show, yet again, how many different spore mechanisms have evolved through time. Many species do tend to independently evolve similar mechanisms because they simply work so well. Again, evolution does not fix what isn’t broken.
After one year of writing for Forest Floor Narrative, I just need a second to thank you, the reader. The goal of this blog was for me to keep learning about the fields I love; mycology, botany, entomology, ecology, and evolution. Also, I wanted to share with you what I learn on my journey because I feel like the more people that understand these interactions, the more protected our native ecosystems will become. We are entering Earth’s 6thmajor extinction event, so everyday people like you and I must dig deep into nature. Species interactions should not be reserved just for scientists, and I think that this is where most of the disparity between these two groups reside.
If you have been with me since the beginning, I hope you appreciate the evolutionary history of these species. When you see a mushroom, plant or insect, you are not just looking at the present species, but an individual that represents a billion-year-old trajectory of species that adapted to life on Earth. Hiking becomes a magical, surreal experience with this mindset.
I have really big plans in store for FFN over the next 12 months and have already been so inspired by you guys along the way. Not only have I received such positive feedback from people around the world, but constructive criticism too. For these reasons, I feel like these articles are getting better, so I really can’t thank you enough. So much has changed since my first blog post here, and I’m just really excited of what may lie ahead. Again, thank you so much for the support.