Discovery of rare mushroom in northern B.C. a biology mystery

A few weeks ago, while jumping logs and crossing creeks near northern B.C.’s Nechako River, hiker Cynthia Andal spotted something that stopped her in her tracks. 

Hidden in the underbrush, she found about two dozen fist-sized, brown leathery blobs filled with black gel. 

“I just stood there in awe for a few moments and I’m thinking this is witches cauldron. I always wanted to see this, for years,” said Andal, who lives in Isle Pierre, west of Prince George. 

“It’s like it’s not even real … You sort of see it and it’s like not something that should be there.” 

Hiker Cynthia Andal spotted a group of rare witches cauldron fungi in the woods near the Nechako River in northern B.C. (Cynthia Andal)

Rumours of the fungus have floated around the northern wilderness community for decades, but the photos Andal posted on social media confirmed them to be true. 

“It’s an incredibly rare fungus,” microbial ecologist Michael Preston told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.

“If you look at [B.C.] species distribution maps, it’s not on the map. There’s no official reported documentation here.

Preston, who teaches at the University of Northern B.C., says witches cauldron is typically found in northern Europe, where it’s threatened and has been declining in recent decades.

The mushrooms sprout from the forest floor after the spring thaw, when the non-toxic but inedible globes are engorged by the sudden availability of water. 

Confirmation of the species here is a surprise, but makes sense, according to Preston.

“It’s in the right kind of habitat,” he said. “We have the boreal forest, and sub-boreal, this is where you oddly expect to find witches cauldron.”

But the discovery is just the first part of unravelling a mushroom mystery.  

Preston says mycologists have yet to figure out the witches cauldron’s full life cycle, or its role in the ecosystem. 

“What does it actually do? Is it a decomposer, which means it’s recycling the nutrients in the forest, decomposing that organic matter? Or is it actually associated with trees themselves, in which it can be actually helping the tree … in exchange for food to help it grow?”

The purpose of the black gel that fills the fungus is similarly a matter of scientific debate. 

Michael Preston, a microbial ecologist, is asking for the public’s help spotting the mushroom so field scientists can launch a research project on the species next spring. (Cynthia Andal)

But Preston says the mere presence of witches cauldron is a good sign.

“It’s phenomenal,” he said. “It’s all about healthy forests. The fact we are seeing it in our forests here, particularly our old-growth forests, means … we’re probably seeing quite a diverse community of fungi in that forest.”

Preston is now asking for the public’s help spotting the mushroom so field scientists can launch a research project on the species next spring.

So far, he’s received at least 50 reports. 

Back in the woods near the Nechako, Andal is thrilled her keen eye has caused a stir in the science world.

“It’s really special,” she says, “I’ll keep my eyes on the ground looking for more.” 

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