Thursday, September 10, 2015

Native Species Profile - Bear's Head Tooth Fungus

I am not a mycologist (fungus expert).  There are very few species of fungi that I can reliably identify.  Even though I am not an expert, I find fungi incredibly interesting because of the role that they play in the environment. 

Because fungi appear inactive biologists once lumped with plants, but many species actually behave more like animals.  Fungi cannot make their own food like plants can, instead they rely on other organisms for their food.  Some species form symbiotic relationships with plants - a relationship that benefits both species - collecting water and nutrients that is shares with the plant and receiving plant starches (food) in exchange.  Other species are parasitic - invading living organisms and stealing food from them.  Many species of fungi are saprophytic.  This means that they break down dead and decaying organism for their food.

One of the more distinctive fungi that can be found in Mid-Michigan is the Bear's Head Tooth Fungus (Hericium americanum).   Because it is so distinctive, this is one fungus that I feel confident in my identification. 

Bear's Head Tooth Fungus (Hericium americanum)

This species is saprophytic and is usually found on decaying deciduous logs, but it may occasionally be found on conifer logs or on living deciduous trees.  Like almost all fungi, the part that we see is only a small part of a much larger organism.  Most of a fungus is hidden in the ground, in dead logs, or even in living trees as a system of root-like fibers called mycelium.  The mushroom that we see on the surface only occurs when the larger fungus is ready to reproduce by sending microscopic spores into the wind.  Essentially a mushroom is a fruiting body produced by the large hidden mass of mycelium for the purpose of reproduction.

The fruiting body of this fungus grows from the decaying log as a thick white stalk topped by several thick white branches.  Each branch is covered by white clusters of drooping spines or teeth.  The overall effect is of a bonsai tree covered with icicles.  This visible fruiting body may be as large as 12 inches by 12 inches.  It is not uncommon to find several growing from the same log.  Over time the color fades from white to cream or brown.

Bear's Head Tooth Fungi (Hericium americanum) growing from a decaying log

Although I rarely eat wild mushrooms because I don't particularly like them, this is one wild fungus that I would confidently eat.  Bear's Head Tooth is considered delicious and has no poisonous lookalikes.  There are several other Hericium species that look similar, but all are edible.  A good rule for any wild food, never eat anything in the wild that you cannot identify with 100% certainty

Humans are not the only creatures that eat the Bear's Head Tooth Fungus.  Rodents such as mice, chipmunks, and squirrels often chew on them.  They are eaten by several species of insects.  They are also avidly consumed by snails and slugs.

A large (2 inch long) slug on a Boar's Head Tooth Fungus

Basic Information

Bear's Head Tooth Fungus
Hericium americanum

Size:  up to 12" by 12"
Habitat:  found on deciduous logs in woodlands; rarely on living trees or conifer logs
Color:  white; fades to cream or brown
Bloom Time:  summer to fall

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