Tremella encephala is an awesome species that shows up in wide diversity of conifer and mixed conifer forests. Commonly known as the conifer brain, this cool fungus produces a pink, tightly folded gelatinous fruitbody that is reminiscent of a small mammalian brain. The species was first described in 1801, and even though over 200 years has past, we’ve only recently figured out how it carries out its life cycle.
Tremella encephala has a wide distribution, growing on dead conifers in temperate, subtropical and tropical regions of the world. This species has not been reported in Mexico, Central America, South America, Africa or the polar regions. Many times, it is the rare species that get much of the attention. We like to find species that most people don’t encounter. A reality all too real in this modern era is that many of us want to see rare species before they go extinct. I too have several rare species on my bucket list, but common species are incredibly valuable to understand. Species that are found all over the planet can attribute their success to a number of things. Tremella encephala can thank not only the conifer trees it is found on, but the fungus it parasitizes.
In 1961 Robert Bandoni published a paper that adequately described the ecology of this brain-like fungus. If you do find this species, cut it in half. You won’t find the pink jelly-like material in the middle. Instead you’ll find a hardier, white structure, surrounded by the gelatinous surface of the fruitbody. Robert Bandoni realized that this white structure was not from the same species. He found several saprotrophic polypores from the genus Stereum fruiting from the same fallen logs he collected Tremella encephala from. He put two and two together, and informed the scientific world before him that the inner white tissue was in fact from another fungus altogether. Tremella encephala thereby encapsulates Stereum sanguinolentum in its brain-like fruitbody.
Stereum sanguinolentum is a common conifer parasite, infecting trees around the planet. The success of this viable fungus is the main reason why Tremella encephala is also successful. I’m glad the ecology of this fungus was revisited by Robert Bandoni. Let this be a reminder of the information out there that we don’t know about. It took almost 200 years after it was described for us to understand that the white core of the fungus was the tissue of another fungus, the fungus Tremella encephala parasitized.