(Re)discovering Glow-in-the-Dark Mushrooms in Brazil

It seems to be the season for discoveries of a fantastical Nature in Brazil.

Hot on the heels of a double-header of Amazonian novelties – a new species of B-movie-worthy exploding zombie ants and a never before contacted Indian tribe found living in a remote patch of rainforest – the latest news to send my imagination into overdrive was the announcement, this week, of the (re)discovery of some very cool-looking, glow-in-the-dark mushrooms.

The “re” part of this discovery is because these Kryptonite-colored Brazilian shrooms have been missing in action for 170 years.

In order to track the mushroom’s signature green glow, the scientists had to take to the rainforest at night, without the aid of flashlights or even moon light.

They initially came to light back in 1840 when a roving British botanist by the name of George Gardner visited the Amazonian state of Tocantins. In a small village, he came upon some boys playing with a glowing object that he initially took to be a herd of fireflies, but subsequently identified as a fungus known to the natives as “flor de coco” (coconut flower).

The boys took Gardner into the rainforest and showed him how the luminescent mushrooms grew at the base of dwarf coconut palms. Gardner sent samples off to the Kew Herbarium in London, where the fungus was classified and, in honor of its “discoverer,” received the official name Neonothopanus gardneri.

Having remained off the grid for 160 years, in the past few years there were reports of bioluminescent mushroom sightings in the Brazilian states of Tocantins and Goiás. However, it wasn’t until 2009 that U.S. scientist Dennis Desjardin, working with a team from San Francisco State University, and Brazilian chemist Cassius Vinicius Stevani, who led a team from the University of São Paulo, were able to actually hunt down new samples of Neonothopanus gardneri.

In order to track the mushroom’s signature green glow, the scientists had to take to the rainforest at night, without the aid of flashlights or even moon light. Aside from tripping in the dark and crashing into trees, potential risks including stepping on poisonous snakes and running into prowling jaguars.

Details about the expedition’s findings will be published later this year in the scientific journal, Mycologia. In the meantime, however, scientists are still in the dark as to the reason behind the luminescence of these fungi. One theory is that the glow attracts nocturnal insects, which can then disperse the fungus’ spores, allowing it to reproduce. Another is that the light draws large insects, which then attack smaller ones that feed on the fungus.

Neonothopanus gardneri is only one of 71 identified species of bioluminescent fungi in the world, 12 of which can be found in Brazil. However, it is definitely one of the largest. While some glow-in-the-dark mushrooms are as fine as strands of hair, the light that emanates from these particular shiny shrooms is bright enough to read a book by.

Talk about magic realism.


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