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Monster Morel Mushrooms Conquered the World!
By Heath Shive
It’s morel mushroom season!
But the morels these days are wimps.
There were once mushrooms that were big as palm trees!
These super-mushrooms dominated the surface of the Earth!
I’m talking about Prototaxites, a super-fungus which was once the largest land creature on the planet.
Even the Mario Bros. couldn’t handle these toadstools!
Don’t believe me?
To the science!
Prototaxites, the Super Mushroom
During what geologists called the late Silurian Period (i.e., 420 to 370 million years ago) – millions of years before the first dinosaur roared – the world was a different place. The ocean had a lot of life. But life on dry land was fairly barren. Plants were small – the tallest trees in the world would come up to your shoulder.
But Prototaxites could be a 3 feet (1 meter) thick and almost 26 feet (8 meters) high!
The Prototaxites were discovered in Canada by W.E. Logan in 1843. But John William Dawson thought the tree was a kind of ancient pine tree eaten by fungus – so he named the fossil Prototaxite,”first yew tree.”
But 150 years later, plant scientist Francis Hueber classified Prototaxites – the whole thing – as one big fungus, due to its structure and morphology.
A few years later, a research team (including Hueber) concluded that Prototaxites was indeed a fungus, due to its variety of carbon isotopes. In plants, like today's trees, two particular carbon isotopes should be in balance because they get their food by photosynthesis. In plants and animals that eat other life-forms, the isotope ratio should vary widely. The Prototaxites’ combination of isotopes indicated that it fed on decaying organic matter, just what you would expect from a fungus.
Of course, Prototaxites was a super-fungus, so it would need a large food supply. But if the plant world was new and small, where would the food come from? Scientists Erik Hobbie and C. Kevin Boyce suggested that Prototaxites could have fed on “algal-derived organic matter.” Even without true plants, there still would have been a huge compost derived from millions of years of algal mats.
The Non-Fungus Theory
However, another group of researchers asserted that Prototaxites was more like a kind of liverwort, curling up with other liverworts and plants and ascending into the air. They thought that the fungus-like structure was just an associative growth with fungi and cyanobacteria, just like in some modern liverworts.
But the “monster mushroom” theory is currently in vogue.
The Mushroom Vogue
Did Jules Verne know about Prototaxites? In chapter 30 of Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Center of the Earth, the heroes find themselves in “a forest of mushrooms” that had been “constructed on a gigantic scale.”
Simon and Schuster’s 2008 edition of the classic has a drawing of the mushroom forest on its cover. If you eliminated the mushroom caps, you’d get a pretty good visual of Prototaxites.
My cousin told me he was a “mushroom hunter.” I told him that you can’t call it “hunting” when it lacks teeth and legs. But who could hunt Prototaxites? Not even Mario and Luigi.
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Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.