Tolypocladium spp.

January 16, 2023

Good evening, friends, and happy MLK Day.
This week’s mushroom is from the genus Tolypocladium (Toe-lip-oh-clay-dee-um). Ciara found this mushroom while hiking through Fahnestock State Park on 12/22/2022. She sent me a picture and I got so excited that the very next day I had her sherpa me a couple miles through the woods on my lunch break to take a closer look. The reason I was so stoked on this little black club was because I had a hunch that it was a parasitic fungus digesting an underground truffle. That little hunch proved fruitful and now we can now dig into this hearty mushroom that’s producing spores well into the winter.

Diligent readers will remember I wrote about Tolypocladium ophioglossoides after finding it in Pennsylvania this summer, and half a year later we get to look at another species of this parasitic fungi. I wrote about the relationship between the Tolypocladium and the Elaphomyces it parasitizes in the blog I linked in the previous sentence, so this will be more of a cursory overview.

The major difference in the two Tolypocladium species we’ve seen is that T. ophioglossoides looks like an old school microphone rising out of the ground, while today’s species is more rotund. Perhaps you look at it and see it as wearing a helmet. After careful excavation, the whole mushroom stretched over six inches down to the deer truffle (not a culinary truffle) it was parasitizing and digesting. The yellow stipe of this parasite is quite conspicuous and the hue was deeper closer to the truffle. And yea, elephant in the room, it is all rather phallic – get your chuckles out now.

Apparently, there are a variety of helmeted Tolypocladium species that are indistinguishable in the field. There are two main species – T. capitatum and T. longisegmentatum – but there are even others that aren’t as well known. Allegedly T. capitatum has a glossy cap – as does our specimen (see below). Regardless of the specific species, the neat fact to remember about this genus of fungi is that the immunosuppresant medication ciclosporin was derived from Tolypocladium inflatum. You may not be able to physically tell the difference between the specific species of helmeted parasites, but to make up for that you can see the spores with your naked eye. The mushroom didn’t miss a few hairs when shaving, those thin grey whiskers you see on the pimply head below are actually spores ejecting out of those pimples (perithecia). Quite uncommon that you can see them without a microscope.

I also have one other cool ecological feature that I’ve been sitting on for months – waiting on a slower winter MM for us to take a closer look. There is a trail where I work in Manitou that bald eagles perch over and eat fish they catch in the Hudson River. Below are a few pictures of fish, in various states of decay, that I found throughout the summer and fall.

From my observations, the eagles eat the majority of the fish and usually drop the head. However, sometimes they drop the majority of the fish. Perhaps this a result of harassment from crows or other eagles. Pretty neat to see a fish on land, sure, but what this reminded me of is one of the cooler ecological arrangements I read about in Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard. She writes about how bears and eagles hunt salmon, saying,

“Each bear preying on the spawning salmon transported some 150 fish per day into the forest, where the roots of the trees foraged for the decaying protein and nutrients, the salmon flesh providing more than three-quarters of the tree’s nitrogen needs. The nitrogen in the tree rings derived from salmon was distinguishable from the soil’s nitrogen because fish at sea get enriched with the heavy isotope nitrogen-15, which serves as a natural tracer of salmon abundance in the wood.” (page 290 in the hardcover… that’s right, the hardcover baby)

This is probably my favorite thing about the world – we’re all connected. I will add that it’s fungi in the soil that are transporting the nitrogen from fish to tree because that’s not entirely clear from the quote. Who would’ve thought that the nitrogen salmon accrue through eating microorganisms and other critters in the ocean then ends up in enormous cedar trees in the pacific northwest – with apex predators and fungi as their conduits. It’s cool to see that same cycle playing out in and around the Hudson River. Nutrient cycling isn’t just contained to the land, ocean, or air. It’s all connected, we’re all connected, and today the fungi were the link.

A nice sentiment to end on, we’re all connected, smile at people when you pass them on the street,

1) Yu FM, Thilini Chethana KW, Wei DP, Liu JW, Zhao Q, Tang SM, Li L, Hyde KD. Comprehensive Review of Tolypocladium and Description of a Novel Lineage from Southwest China. Pathogens. 2021 Oct 27;10(11):1389. doi: 10.3390/pathogens10111389. PMID: 34832545; PMCID: PMC8620668.
2) and
3) Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.