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Citizen science: For the fungi

Posted by: UK_FD

Learning how much we don’t know about fungi has been one of the most exciting things to discover on my fungal journey so far.

I have only been completely obsessed for the past eight months, and those have been a whirlwind tour of exploring each of the various fungal avenues. I think a lot of people on this path go through a similar pattern - trying to absorb all the information out there as quickly as possible, then waiting to see where the dust falls and what area of the mushroom world they want to investigate more deeply. The following is my take on citizen science, the potential it holds and ways to engage more people, coming at this as a newcomer and a beginner.

Having started this process through deciding I wanted to learn how to grow mushrooms, I am now at the point of realising that there is so much work to be done in broadening our knowledge of kingdom fungi. If we want to understand more any time soon and conserve what there is, more people need to be actively engaged in gathering data on the huge diversity of fungi.

Academic vs Amateur

I aspire to know a lot more one day and am going down the academic route of starting a degree, however I am also a firm believer in citizen science and the value of data. A degree will take me six years, but I want to be contributing to and encouraging others to contribute to this effort starting now. The scale of the work that needs to be done and the urgency of the current loss of habitat around the world, makes this even more pressing.

Growing blue oyster mushrooms
Growing blue oyster mushrooms

In looking into which degree to pursue, it seems that although there are degrees for medical mycology, there are none for mycology alone in the UK. The demand for certain degrees will fall within the limits of our current system, where there are a lot of jobs in the medical field but not so many for the sake of understanding fungi and for conservation as a whole.

Tiny orange bonnet fruitbodies amongst moss
Tiny orange bonnet fruitbodies amongst moss

This is where citizen science can pick up the baton and run with it. In collaboration with scientists, citizens can be out in the field gathering meaningful data, which scientists can then use to write papers and further investigate the largely unseen world of fungi.

Who will help?

There is a huge potential pool of people who are either already interested in fungi, or who could be persuaded to take a little interest. This could even be during activities they already do, for example birdwatchers, families going for walks in the woods, ramblers, gardeners, photographers and beekeepers. The mycological community could reach out and say we need your help!

There are so many different reasons you should care about fungi and I believe there is at least one, if not many, that will resonate with everyone.

Where to start?

In various mushroom communities on social media, there are new people joining all the time. A common question seems to be, “I’m interested in mushrooms, but I don’t know where to start.” Or “It all seems a bit overwhelming.” Indeed it can seem overwhelming, especially if you are prone to distractions and side tangents, of which there are many when learning about mushrooms - what should someone learn about first? 

Mushroom growing, myco-materials, medicinal mushrooms, mycorrhizal relationships and the wood-wide web, mycorrhizal applications in gardening, mycoremediation, solutions to breaking down plastics, foraging, antiviral properties for bees, psilocybin therapy trials, photography, art, conservation, microscopy, DNA barcoding - the possibilities go on.

 

The easier it is for people to pursue their interests in this field, the more beneficial the outcome. As you probably know, people who are interested in mushrooms like to talk about it, quite a lot… (guilty) you never know who they will talk to about it and who else they might inspire, and so the message spreads.

A microscopic view captured on a smartphone
A microscopic view captured on a smartphone

The other thing I have found is that the mushroom community are very friendly and supportive of beginners, no matter how many times someone posts, “My grow kit looks funny, what did I do wrong?” there are people on hand to help them out without judgment. There is an atmosphere of knowledge sharing rather than knowledge hoarding.

My route was deciding to try and grow mushrooms, with a grow kit to start with and then gradually learning how to grow them myself. That kept me absorbed for a few months, while I listened to the Mushroom Hour Podcast, which was a rapid exposure to the many, many different aspects of kingdom fungi. There is something for everyone, and once you have found your way in you gradually pick up on other areas and start to care more and more, and your interests broaden.

This wide appeal should be a great benefit to increasing citizen science, as the more people who are interested, the more people will want to go on and learn about identifying mushrooms, and from there on to the whole process of collecting, doing microscopy, and DNA barcoding. Not everyone will, but there is a greater pool of people who might.

I think citizen science has a huge role to play in growing our understanding of the fungal world. Engaging more people in this process has many benefits not just for the fungi, but for conservation as a whole.

Corina Marcos

By Corina Marcos, who is sharing her fungal learning journey.
Find me on Instagram and Facebook: @miniecologyproject

Corina Marcos