August 15, 2022
Good afternoon, friends,
This week’s mushroom, as hinted to last week, is the goldenthread cordyceps, or the snaketongue truffleclub (Tolypocladium ophioglossoides). We found it growing so abundantly in Locust Lake State Park last week that it was difficult not to step on all of them. What appears to be an unassuming little “snake tongue” popping through the leaf litter unravels into a mystery much greater as we follow the golden mycelium to it’s subterranean origins. Let’s check it out.
This fungus is parasitic on another fungus – you literally can’t write this sentence without doubling the “fun”. This fungus grows from deer truffles (genus Elaphomyces), the same type of deer truffle that you can frequently find chewed up by little critters (featured at the bottom of the MM Both Bolete Foray edition). If you’re observant enough to happen upon T. ophioglossoides in the woods, you want to be very diligent with your collection to make sure you get both fungi involved. Some of the clubs would pop up right from the truffle, making collection fairly simple, but others required diligent digging for inches (seen below) before we found the truffle. A similar species, T. capitatum erupts directly from the deer truffle and doesn’t possess the robust, golden mycelial cords you see below.
This mushroom was originally in the genus Cordyceps, comprising fungi that parasitize insects (you may be familiar with zombie ants), but recent DNA sequencing has shifted around the taxonomy of these parasitic fungi. This fungus was shuffled into the genus Tolypocladium which is still in the same family as Cordyceps, but not as closely related as previously thought. One note about the evolutionary history of insect-parasitizing fungi is that they all evolved from a fungus that parasitized other fungi – a fungus like T. ophioglossoides. The mushroom we’re looking at here, parasitizing the deer truffle, is somewhat of an evolutionary stepping stone. It’s believed that the zombie ant fungi, Cordyceps, shared a common ancestor with T. ophioglossoides, but were then able to jump to a different and perhaps more prevalent host (insects are the most numerous and diverse creatures in the animal kingdom).
The etymology of Ophioglossoides comes from Ancient Greek and signifies “like a snake’s tongue”. I then spent too much time fruitlessly trying to figure out what Tolypocladium meant and only got that “Toly” is ‘the eastern direction’ or ‘sunrise’ in Ancient Greek. I think the name has to do with the whole taxonomic reshuffling of Cordyceps and denotes there are a lot of different clades/species in the genus Tolypocladium. Unsure.
In 1971, the now commonly prescribed immunosuppressant, Ciclosporin, was derived from the near relative Tolypocladium inflatum.
As previously mentioned, T. ophioglossoides is parasitic on deer truffles – the underground fruiting bodies of a different fungus in the genus Elaphomyces. These deer truffles are similar in shape to the culinary truffle (genus Tuber), but they’re not that closely related. Attempts to sequence the DNA of these deer truffles have not yet been successful, so it’s unclear whether T. ophioglossoides prefers a specific species or is a general parasite across all species of deer truffles. The copious amount of clubs we found inclines me to think they’re generalists across all Elaphomyces.
T. ophioglossoides grows summer through fall in eastern North America, but can also be found in Europe. We found it growing in the moist soil of a river plain, less than two days after a heavy rain, but presumably it can grow wherever deer truffles grow. It is an ascomycete (“asco” for short), and is in a different phylum from the gilled and pored mushrooms we typically learn about (basidiomycetes). The spores of T. ophioglossoides, like other ascos, develop in a sac called an ascus. The fungus then uses ballistics to eject them into the world which differs from basidiomycetes that rely on gravity to pull the spores out of the mushroom. The above ground club (which can vary from one to several per deer truffle) is the actual reproductive organ, and the pimples on the club are the asci (plural of ascus) that eject the spores.
Another note was the range of colors that developed as the fungus aged. The smallest, youngest clubs were orange – closer in color to the mycelium – before they aged to a jet black.
My friend Rick noticed, and documented with his macro-lens, the white mycelium of presumably another fungus growing on the fruiting body of one of the specimens we collected. In his two pictures below, we can see a fungus growing on a fungus growing on a fungus. A magnificent example of the deep interconnectedness of nature and life.
I’m off to Colorado for the Telluride Mushroom Festival. From Gate 44 in Terminal B at Laguardia, with love,
1) Kuo, M. (2006, October). Cordyceps ophioglossoides. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/cordyceps_ophioglossoides.html