Before Trees, We Had Giant Mushrooms

Mushrooms in the Grass Courtesy MW at Pixabay
Mushrooms in the Grass
Courtesy MW at Pixabay
Yes, trees are the answer. But they owe their magnificence to a less known life form that has long intrigued me. Long before trees overtook the land, Earth was covered by giant mushrooms 24 feet tall and three feet wide. And consider Utah’s Pando aspen clone, one of the largest and oldest, mycorrhizal-dependent, living organisms

Mushrooms are actually the reproductive manifestation of a much larger organism, a brief glimpse of the wonders that reside beneath the ground. Called mycorrhizal fungi, they form a mutually beneficial relationship with tree roots and other plants. They vastly increase the absorption capacity for water and minerals. Many trees and other plants cannot live without these fungal partners. It also makes the plant less susceptible to soil borne pathogens and other environmental stresses such as drought and salinity.

Regarding climate protection, mycelium make up the bulk of carbon storage in forests. Scientists in Sweden were surprised by this; they were expecting dead tree matter to shoulder the carbon burden. But as mycologist Paul Stamets states, “dead mycelium can store carbon for hundreds of thousands of years.

Remarkably, recent research has shown that plants connected by mycorrihzal fungi can use these underground connections to produce and receive warning signals. When a host plant is attacked, the plant signals surrounding plants of its condition. The host plant releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that attract the insect’s predators, as do the plants connected by the fungi network.

Further, fungi have been found to have a protective role for plants rooted in soils with high toxic metal concentrations. This is likely due to the metal binding to fungal mycelium.

Taking a broader view, recent research indicates mushrooms possess curative properties for many diseases, including neurological. Add to this bioremediation through cleaning up industrial waste and oil spills, and applications for reducing loss of our pollinators. Critical to soil function as decomposers and providing nutrients, mushrooms also play a major role in soil structure through hyphae networking and glomalin (that is biological glue) production.

The idea that a universal web of dark matter, plus our more familiar World Wide Web, plus the neurological networking in the human brain, all mimicking the mycelial networks of mushrooms under our feet that bind and feed all of Earth’s soil. The idea that this network, an enormous mass of fungus that branches and communicates underground, is in some way sentient. The idea that human brains went through an evolutionary growth spurt after we encountered “magic” mushrooms on the savannah of Africa- all worthy of serious rumination.
Fall has arrived, and with it mushrooms to titillate the imagination- and gastric juices.

This is Jack Greene and boy am I wild about Utah and Pando’s mycelium!

Credits:

Pictures: M W from Pixabay
Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Pace, Matthew, (Intern, NYBG), Hidden Partners: Mycorrhizal Fungi and Plants, New York Botanical Garden, https://sciweb.nybg.org/science2/hcol/mycorrhizae.asp.html

Chadwick, Douglas H., Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Amazing Underground Secret to a Better Garden. Mother Earth News, August/September 2014, https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/gardening-techniques/mycorrhizal-fungi-zm0z14aszkin

See “Mushrooms” in the following:
Cumo, Christopher, Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia [3 volumes]: From Acacia to Zinnia, Amazon Digital Services LLC, April 25, 2013, https://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Cultivated-Plants-Acacia-volumes-ebook/dp/B00ODJN5BU
See also: https://books.google.com/books?id=Ja7WAQAAQBAJ&q=mushrooms#v=snippet&q=mushrooms&f=false

The Bear River Range and River

Bear River Courtesy USDA Forest Service usda-forest_service_bear_river-250x188
Bear River
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
usda-forest_service_bear_river-250×188
Cache Valley Utah and the Bear River range that border its eastern edge are anomalies. Especially considering the abundance of water coursing through its canyons and valley bottom. Following a prolonged drought in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1850’s, it was the abundant wetland plants in cache valley’s center that first enticed Mormon pioneers to settle here. Fed by numerous streams discharging from the Bear River range and the mighty Bear River, these waters were trapped by the fine sediments of Lake Bonneville. The result was lush green forage, even in dry years. The native tribes and mountain men knew it well, and followed the wildlife which flourished here long before the arrival of pioneers.

I’ve quenched my thirst from the countless springs found in our eastern canyons and basins, always a reminder of our good fortune. One might ask, what set of circumstances allow Cache Valley to be so well watered? What follows are my hypotheses. A combination of geology, and climate.

The Bear River range, a subset of the Wasatch, is close to 20 miles wide, and averages well over 8,000 feet in elevation, topping just shy of 10,000 feet at Naomi Peak. Its height and width allow it to capture an abundant snowpack in normal years. The regional climate may be partially responsible as well. Extreme cold temperatures compared to surrounding mountains, the second coldest measured in the 48 states, atop Logan Canyon, enhance precipitation.

Geologically this mountain range is composed primarily of limestone and dolostone, both are excellent formations for absorbing water, which reappears as springs forming the headwaters of its numerous streams. As snow melts, water seeps through the broken limestone, referred to as Karst topography, until it hits an impervious layer of shale or mudstone, where it collects and eventually punches through a fractured seam of rock, to surface as a spring.

All are tributaries of the Bear River, plummeting from the north slope of the Uintah’s, a unique river system with its headwaters and mouth close to the same latitude. It provides nearly 2/3rds of the service water flowing into the Great Salt Lake. This is the longest river in North America which doesn’t end up in an ocean. With a changing climate proposed, further impoundment and diversions of these waters, the future of our unique hydrology is under constant threat. I wish us great wisdom in how we chose to manage this vital resource.

This Is Jack Green, and Yes, I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:

Pictures: Bear River Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Lopez, Tom, Bear River Range, IDAHO: A Climbing Guide, https://www.idahoaclimbingguide.com/bookupdates/bear-river-range/

Silence

Silence: Kings Peak, Courtesy Wikimedia, Hyrum K. Wright, Photographer
Kings Peak,
in the High Uintas Wilderness,
Ashley National Forest
Courtesy Wikimedia
Hyrum K. Wright, Photographer
Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License

Silence is a rare commodity in the world we have created. Our senses are bombarded with all descriptions of sound to the point of sensory exhaustion. Likened to PTSD when violating a safe threshold, it may be time to find an escape.

Our avian friends are experiencing the same affliction.

As I was reminded on my early am canyon run, birds rely heavily on vocalizations to communicate. Lazuli buntings, warbling vireos, the barely audible blue gray gnatcatchers added pleasure to my uphill slog. But not singing for me, rather to attract mates, defend their territory from rivals, and warnings for predators.

The excess racket that humans contribute prompt some species to sing at different times and in different ways. In Mexico, researchers found that house finches raised the pitch of their lowest song notes in response to road noise, and also held them longer. A study published in Current Biology examined song changes of the great tit across ten European cities revealed that in each location the birds omitted the low-frequency portion of their call.

However helpful such biological tricks may be for some birds, the nearer one gets to a densely populated town or city, the less diverse the avian community becomes. Not all species have the ability to work around the commotion.

House sparrows, which have a significant low-frequency component to their songs, have suffered population declines of two thirds in Great Britain over the past few decades. A university of Colorado at Boulder study found that mourning doves and black-headed grosbeaks avoid nesting near sites where natural gas is being extracted, as they cannot tolerate the noisy compressors. Blood tests revealed that levels of corticosterone in birds closest to the gas compressors were far lower than normal. This initially came as a surprise to the researchers, because corticosterone is the bird equivalent of cortisol — the hormone that prompts the human body to release a flood of adrenaline, increasing blood pressure, and jolting our brain with sugar. Only 21 different species resided in the noisy sites, compared to 32 in the quiet ones.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the 21st Century, perhaps to our demise, but the birds may have a lesson to teach us about the value of peace and quiet: just how frighteningly little of it remains. According to an audio ecologist study, fewer than five minutes go by before the average patch of wilderness is interrupted by the sounds of human interference.

After years of recording the natural environment in places all around the globe, Gordon estimates that fewer than a dozen truly silent places are left. It is not just the birds that are vulnerable, either. The breeding success of some Australian frog species is being impacted by traffic noise, and ocean noise pollution caused by boat engines. Who knows what variety of species may be affected? Noise might seem an unlikely player on the ecological stage, but further study is definitely warranted on impacts of the anthropogenic racket.

This is Jack Greene, and yes, I’m wild about Utah!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Wikimedia, Hyrum K. Wright, Photographer
Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Leavitt, Shauna, Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks, Wild About Utah, May 6, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/natural-quiet-and-darkness-in-our-national-parks/

High Uintas Wilderness, Ashley National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/ashley/specialplaces/?cid=fsm9_002443

Hempton, Gordon, SoundTracker.org, Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, Mar 2, 2010 (reprint), https://www.soundtracker.com/

Hempton, Gordon, One Square Inch of Silence, , https://www.amazon.com/One-Square-Inch-Silence-Preserve/dp/1416559108/

Herps

Herps: Long-nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia-wislizenii Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Gambelia-wislizenii
Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them- we are the herpers, the mighty, mighty herpers!
Stumbling around the desert with fishing poles in hand. Hot, dry, no water within miles. A casual observer might question our sanity. But here’s the deal. We have full control over our mental faculty.

Our defense. First, our fishing poles are used for the capture and release of lizards. Remarkably fast and allusive, these rigs are the answer. A small slipknot noose using monofilament fishing line is attached to the end of the pole. The lizards often freeze as the line is dangled slightly in front of their nose and gently slipped over their heads. A quick upward flip and bingo (with a bit of luck) a lizard dances freely from the line’s end.
“I caught one!” alerts the others within shouting distance, and the crew soon assembles to view the prize. Photos are taken which includes GPS coordinates, then the victim passes multiple hands, and is released to resume its lizard business following the rude interruption.

Herps: Western Banded Gecko, Courtesy NPS
Western Banded Gecko
Courtesy NPS

This has become an April tradition for our USU Wildlife Society students with a keen interest in herpetology. We relish the Mojave Desert surrounding St. George with flowers in full bloom and bird song in full tilt.
Our desert ramblings have revealed many herp treasures- spiny lizards, spectacled rattle snakes, desert iguanas, desert tortoise, chuckwalla, canyon tree frog to name a few. Within the past two years, we have assembled well over two dozen different species. The Mojave is second only to the Sonoran Desert for biodiversity. I’m always amazed how this parched, desolate land can support such a remarkable abundance of life forms. The Mojave Desert hosts about 200 endemic plant species found in neither of the adjacent deserts.

I’m going to end with a brief description of my favorite little lizard that appears so delicate, like a desert flower, it stands in stark contrast to this seemingly inhospitable environment. In good light its paper thin skin covered with minute scales, allows one to see the interior workings of its slender body.
The western banded gecko is secretive and nocturnal, foraging at night for small insects and spiders, often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads. It is one of the few reptiles that controls scorpion populations by eating their babies. If captured it may squeak and discard its tail. As a defense mechanism, it can also curl its tail over its body to mimic a scorpion. Geckos also store fat in their tails. Being they maintain a reduced metabolism at low temperatures, their tail fat can sustain them for up to nine months. Because the western banded gecko restricts its activities to nights, it is often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads.

This is Jack Greene and I’m wild about the banded gecko, all its cousins, and this amazing land we call Utah!

Credits:

Pictures: Banded Gecko Courtesy US NPS
Pictures Leopard Lizard, Courtesy PXHere.com
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, The Lizard and His Tail, Wild About Utah, June 11, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/the-lizard-and-his-tail/

Repanshek Kurt, Western Banded Gecko, Wild About Utah, Feb 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/western-banded-gecko/

Strand, Holly, Gila Monsters, Wild About Utah, Feb 4, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/gila-monsters/

One Biota Network, Noosing Technique for Capturing Lizards, YouTube, May 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkcOpPRfeug

Reptiles, Zion National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Reptiles, Canyonlands National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cany/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Species List, Arches National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/species-lists.htm

Reptiles and Amphibians, Bryce Canyon National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/brca/learn/nature/reptiles.htm