April 20, 2010

Biologist and curator picks out the fungus among us

Evolutionary Biologist and Field Museum curator Gregory Mueller discussed the 1,300 species of fungi in the Chicago area at a talk at 5710 Woodlawn Saturday, part of a series of Hyde Park natural history lectures started by President of the Jackson Park Advisory Council Ross Peterson.

Chicago soil is especially well suited to fungi, but urbanization has led to decreasing amounts of nitrogen in the soil, Mueller said. Recently, the diversity of Chicago fungi has come under threat because of nitrogen depletion.

“For the first time in history, more people reside in urban areas than in rural areas, [which] implies that more natural environments are now in closer proximity to humans than before,” Mueller said.

Members of the community inquired about techniques and precautions that should be taken when harvesting popular edible fungi, such as chanterelles. Because of the subtle differences displayed between benign and poisonous mushroom species, people who often scavenge for mushrooms as a hobby may experience a bad case of stomach problems, or worse, Mueller said. 

The risks, Mueller said, are not limited to poisonous mushrooms. When people pick mushrooms from their neighbor’s yards, they won’t know about any harsh pesticides sprayed on the lawn that could make them sick. Mueller laid down a commandment for mushroom pickers: “Know thy neighbor’s yards.”

The talk highlighted the diversity of fungi and the important role that fungi play in the natural ecosystems in and around Chicago. “Chicago is a cool place where nature and people coexist,” Mueller said.

Mueller said Chicago residents should be more proactive about preserving the area’s fungi. “The Chicago Region supports a high diversity of macrofungi, some of which are unique to the area. We must decide as a community if it is a harbinger of where we want our ecosystems to be.”

The talk was hosted by the Civic Knowledge Project, Hyde Park Historical Society, and the Jackson Advisory Council.