Winter Colour - Fungi in the Snowy Mountains
As the first snow falls on the higher peaks, there is a chill in the air above Talbingo, on the eastern side of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales. Walking along the Hume-Hovel track, commemorating the route taken by explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell while forging a path from Sydney to Melbourne in 1824, flashes of colour peak from the leaf litter.
The leaf litter has been tossed here and there by Lyrebirds, calling loudly from the dense undergrowth. Their identity is given away by their call changing from that of a loud shrike-thrush, to that of a black cockatoo without pause for the change of pitch. Birds and small mammals play an essential role in disturbing leaf litter, increasing the rate of decomposition, and becoming food for fungi. Exposed in the scratchings of brown leaves is a world of colour, a diverse range of fungi.
A stand-out is the brilliant purple of Cortinarius archeri, which grows singly, or in small clusters, with a glossy, sticky cap. A common species below the towering gums on the crest of the escarpment, it forms a mycorrhizal relationship with the roots of the eucalypts it grows beneath.
Several fungi grow in conspicuous clusters, including the orange-capped Hypholoma fasciculare, with fine white hairs on the caps, and shaggy brown hairs on the stalks. The red-capped Dermocybe splendida grows in smaller clusters, standing out for the depth of colour. One of the more unusual species is the coral-like growth of Ramaria capitata.
Two of the less conspicuous species are puff-balls, with spores held within globular fruiting bodies. Scleroderma cepa peels open, leaving mature spores exposed to rain, and spread by the splashing drops. Lycoperdon scabrum has a small pore at the top through which the spores are released in a puff when the ball is hit by a raindrop.
Umbrella-like in shape, the caps of 'toadstools' do perform the function of an umbrella, protecting fungal spores from rain, ensuring the spores are mature at the time they are released.
Fungal relationships can be quite complex. The best-known, and often conspicuous forms are lichens, a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga species. Lichens take on many forms, as colourful skins on rocks, bark and soils, or larger, plant-like forms like the spiky lichen shown below.
These and many more fungi add a wealth of colour to the forest when few plants are in flower.