'SpongeBob' mushroom discovered in the forests of Borneo

Jun 15, 2011
Spongiforma squarepantsii is found in the forests of Borneo. Credit: Tom Bruns, U.C. Berkeley

Sing it with us: What lives in the rainforest, under a tree?

Spongiforma squarepantsii, a new species of mushroom almost as strange as its cartoon namesake.

Its discovery in the forests of , says San Francisco State University researcher Dennis Desjardin, suggests that even some of the most charismatic characters in the fungal kingdom are yet to be identified.

Shaped like a , S. squarepantsii was found in 2010 in the Lambir Hills in Sarawak, Malaysia. It is bright orange—although it can turn purple when sprinkled with a strong chemical base—and smells "vaguely fruity or strongly musty," according to Desjardin and colleagues' description published in the journal Mycologia.

Under a scanning electron microscope, the spore-producing area of the fungus looks like a seafloor carpeted in tube sponges, which further convinced the researchers to name their find after the famous Bob.

The new species is only one of two species in the Spongiforma genus. The other species is found in central Thailand, and differs in color and odor. But close examination of the fungi and genetic analysis revealed that the two were relatives living thousands of miles apart.

"We expect that it has a wider range than these two areas," said Desjardin, a professor in ecology and evolution in the SFSU Biology Department. "But perhaps we haven't seen it in more places because we haven't collected it yet in some of the underexplored forests of the region."

Desjardin said Spongiforma are related to a group of that includes the tasty porcini. But the genus sports an unusual look that is far from the expected cap and stem style.

"It's just like a sponge with these big hollow holes," he explained. "When it's wet and moist and fresh, you can wring water out of it and it will spring back to its original size. Most mushrooms don't do that."

Spongiforma's ancestors had a cap and stem, but these characters have been lost over time—a common occurrence in fungi, Desjardin noted.

The cap and stem design is an elegant evolutionary solution to a fungal problem. The stem lifts the fungus' reproductive spores off the ground so that they can be dispersed more easily by wind and passing animals, while the cap protects the spores from drying out in their lofty but exposed position.

Spongiforma squarepantsii spores are found in the forests of Borneo. Credit: Tom Bruns, U.C. Berkeley

In its humid home, Spongiforma has taken a different approach to keeping its spores wet. "It's become gelatinous or rubbery," Desjardin said. "Its adaptation is to revive very quickly if it dries out, by absorbing very small amounts of moisture from the air."

S. squarepantsii now has another claim to fame: It joins the five percent of species in the vast and diverse Kingdom Fungi that have been formally named. Researchers estimate that there may be anywhere from 1.5 to 3 million fungal species.

"Most of these are very cryptic, molds and little things, most of them are not mushrooms," Desjardin said. But even mushrooms—which are sort of like the big game of the fungal world—are mostly unknown.

"We go to underexplored forests around the world, and we spend months at a time collecting all the mushrooms and focusing on various groups," Desjardin said. "And when we do that type of work, on average, anywhere from 25 percent to 30 percent of the species are new to science."

Desjardin and his colleague Don Hemmes of the University of Hawaii at Hilo will describe five new white-spored species of mushrooms from the native mountain forests of Hawaii in an upcoming issue of Mycologia.

The Hawaiian are among the diverse set of organisms found on the islands and nowhere else in the world. Desjardin and his colleagues are racing to discover and study the islands' fungi before native forests succumb to agriculture and grazing.

"We don't know what's there, and that keeps us from truly understanding how these habitats function," Desjardin said. "But we think that all this diversity is necessary to make the forests work the way they're supposed to work."

Explore further: Big data and the science of the Christmas tree

More information: "Spongiforma squarepantsii, a new species of gasteroid bolete from Borneo," was published online on May 10, 2011 in Mycologia.

Related Stories

Seven new luminescent mushroom species discovered

Oct 05, 2009

Seven new glow-in-the-dark mushroom species have been discovered, increasing the number of known luminescent fungi species from 64 to 71. Reported today in the journal Mycologia, the new finds include two ne ...

Japanese gourmet mushroom found in Sweden

Jun 28, 2010

In Japan, the hon-shimeji mushroom is a delicacy costing up to $1000 a kilo. Now a student at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has discovered that this tasty fungus also grows wild in Sweden.

Diverse fungal root endophytes baffling

Sep 09, 2010

No-one but specialists using genetic methods can distinguish one dark septate fungal root endophyte from another. An analysis of their distribution in the northern hemisphere is now available for the first ...

Recommended for you

Big data and the science of the Christmas tree

2 hours ago

Often called the "Cadillac of Christmas trees," the Fraser Fir has everything a good Christmas tree should have: an even triangular shape, a sweet piney fragrance, and soft needles that (mostly) stay attached ...

Study shows starving mantis females attract more males

Dec 17, 2014

A study done by Katherine Barry an evolutionary biologist with Macquarie University in Australia has led to the discovery that a certain species of female mantis attracts more males when starving, then do ...

African swine fever threatens Europe

Dec 17, 2014

African swine fever, or ASF, is a viral disease that kills almost every pig it infects and is likened to Ebola. It gained a foothold in Georgia in 2007, when contaminated pig meat landed from a ship from ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.