In the heart of the Ecuadorian jungle, scientists Alan Rockefeller and Mandie Quark embarked on a crucial mission to document and study rare fungi facing rapid decline. This decline is attributed to the impacts of climate change, illegal logging, and mining in the unprotected rainforests of the upper Amazon. The spotlight of their research falls on the fascinating "zombie fungus," cordyceps, notorious for colonizing insect hosts and compelling them to release spores at specific locations, ultimately leading to their demise.
As twilight sets in the dense jungle, Rockefeller and Quark navigated the challenging terrain with an ultraviolet light, revealing luminous cordyceps fragments resembling a scene from the supernatural. Dubbed the "zombie fungus" for its eerie effects on insects, cordyceps becomes the focal point of the scientists' meticulous observations.
The researchers, equipped with their mycological expertise, meticulously photograph and catalog each specimen they encounter during their expeditions. Their mission is to contribute to the preservation of the world's rarest fungi, which face existential threats due to the changing climate and human activities such as illegal logging and mining.
The Amazon rainforest, renowned for its incredible biodiversity, houses numerous undiscovered species of fungi. Many of these fungi await recognition and documentation, and Rockefeller and Quark are determined to fill this gap in our understanding. They employ various scientific techniques, including macro photography with focus stacking and DNA sequencing, to comprehensively capture the intricate details of each specimen.
Central to their approach is the art of myco-photography, where each click of the shutter is an attempt to freeze a fleeting moment in the life cycle of these fragile organisms. Spending most of their lives underground, these fungi rarely get the attention they deserve. Rockefeller emphasizes, "My goal is to take the best photo possible to get people excited about biodiversity and make them want to learn more about mushrooms."
However, their research goes beyond capturing captivating images. Rockefeller and Quark collaborate with the Indigenous Sacha Wasi community, gaining valuable insights into different fungi species and their culinary or ecological potential. This collaborative approach not only enhances scientific knowledge but also strengthens the bond between scientists and local communities invested in preserving their land.
The scientists operate with a dual purpose: to expand our understanding of Amazonian fungi and to raise awareness for ecological conservation efforts in Ecuador and beyond. Naming each discovered species is a critical aspect of their work, as Rockefeller explains, "Knowing what you have is really important for conservation." Providing a name to a species allows for its preservation and facilitates communication in scientific endeavors such as chemical analysis.
Recognizing the limited access most people have to the rainforest, Rockefeller and Quark leverage social media platforms and app-based tools like iNaturalist, Mushroom Observer, GenBank, and MycoMap to share their findings. This democratization of information enables a global audience to scrutinize and appreciate the intricate details of these fungi, often before the species face extinction.
Beyond the scientific contributions, the researchers aim to open a window into the immense potential of fungi and underscore the urgency of preserving irreplaceable ecosystems. Quark reflects on the significance of their work, stating, "It is hard to stay in the present moment these days – we always have a million things trying to grab our attention. But the work we are doing is drawing attention to the here and now, and inspiring others to do the same."
In essence, their efforts go beyond scientific exploration; they are a poignant reminder of the delicate balance of life and the ephemeral nature of existence. Quark beautifully encapsulates this sentiment, noting, "Mushrooms exist at the precipice of life and death. They remind us that existence is fleeting, and our human experience is also fleeting." The researchers, by being present in the perfect moment to discover these mushrooms, invite others to appreciate the fleeting beauty of life in the intricate details of the natural world.
Photo credits: Rachel Bujalski
Article inspired by the following feature in The Guardian