By Frances Figart, Creative Director
Our park has among the highest diversity of fungi in North America. There are more than 3,000 documented species, probably a significant underestimation of the true numbers according to fungi experts, or mycologists.
A mysterious type is called pyrophilous fungi. It has long been thought that their fruiting bodies—mushrooms—are either enhanced by or completely dependent upon fire.
Mycology is a dying academic area. So, it was fortunate that two of the few remaining scientists who can accurately identify fungi in the wild happened to be working at the University of Tennessee when the Chimney Tops 2 fire occurred in the park four years ago in November of 2016.
“Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the eastern US deciduous forests have not had many fires for about 100 years,” said Karen W. Hughes, a professor in UT’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “Thus, there was not much knowledge about pyrophilous fungi in the eastern forests.”
In 1990, Hughes began working with mycologist Ronald H. Petersen. Collaborating was easy, not only because they were both professors in the same department, but because of their very unique relationship—built around their common passion: fungi.
“We have collaborated for about 30 years,” said Hughes, “and during that time took students all over the US, and to Europe, South America, and Central America for our studies on species distributions.”
In 2005, Hughes and Peterson got married at a Mycological Society of America meeting in Hawaii. She was 65 and he was 71.
The pair worked with other mycologists to define species, evaluate species distributions, and find cryptic (hidden) species. They had always wanted to answer questions like: What is the timing of pyrophilous fungi after a fire? Are they endemic? Are they the same as those in the western US?
When the 2016 fire occurred, it offered an opportunity to explore these questions in the Smokies. Hughes swiftly applied for a National Science Foundation “RAPID” grant to do the study. Hers was the only grant related to these fires that was funded.
“We put together a team of mycologists across mycological disciplines, organized large group forays, and set up the data collections systems,” said Hughes. “All this was in place when we received the grant and started work in February of 2017, approximately two months after the fire.”
With more than 70,000 documented specimens of fungi in their collections, Hughes and Peterson were able to show that pyrophilous fungi were indeed only found after a fire or were enhanced by a fire.
Why does this couple love fungi so much? “Many fungi are degraders and break down organic materials, returning nutrients to the soil. They provide food to cultures all over the world, they are a source of medicines, and some are psychogenic and are being tested as a treatment for depression and PTSD,” Hughes said. “Their importance is really underappreciated.”
Peterson, now 86, is still sifting through their considerable herbarium collection of fungi specimens and getting correct names on some of what they call the LBMs (little brown mushrooms). Hughes, now 80, is finishing the data analysis on the fire study and then hopes to focus on some kind of semi-retirement. “Though I doubt,” she said, “that either of us will ever really stop working.”