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MONT ALTO, PA. - Even the scientists who study them say they have no clue as to how many kinds of mushrooms there are in the world.
Two Penn State Mont Alto professors - Beth Brantley, a forestry instructor, and Lauraine Hawkins, an assistant biology professor - hope to find out more about mushrooms growing in four area national parks within 100 miles of the campus over the next three years.
Brantley and Hawkins are leading a $130,000 study funded by the National Park Service to survey, collect and identify mushrooms at Antietam National Battlefield, Catoctin Mountain Park, C&O Canal National Historical Park and Prince William Forest Park.
Six Penn State Mont Alto students will be hired over the three years to assist in the field and lab work, Brantley said.
"We know lots about animals, birds and trees, all the big conspicuous organisms, but only a small fraction of fungi have ever been described," she said.
The team will identify the species they find in the four national parks by their shape, color and size and by checking their spores under microscopes. Spores are to mushrooms what seeds are to plants.
The actual mushrooms that are seen above ground, such as the tasty morels that area residents hunt in nearby woods every spring and fall, are like apples on a tree. The apples only are a tiny part of a much larger organism - the tree.
It's the same with mushrooms. What is seen above ground is nothing compared to the labyrinth of microscopic tissue-like root systems unseen underground.
"The idea behind the grant is that we don't know a lot about things that live around us," Hawkins said. "Humans are busy changing the planet in a very large way. A lot of people are anxious to learn about things around us before they go extinct."
Aldo Leopold, (1887-1948) the great conservationist, speaking on the importance of protecting species, said losing one to extinction is akin to throwing away parts on an engine on an airplane in flight.
"We need to look at how we're changing the environment, but first we have to know what's there," Hawkins said.
Brantley said the National Park Service survey is part of a biological inventory of species of animals and plants around the country.
She said the Penn State project will help the park service to make better management decisions on how and where to locate new campsites and trails and to increase the general knowledge of mushrooms in the four national parks.
Brantley, Hawkins and their student assistants will work closely with park personnel in their surveys.
Mushrooms are a food source for many animals, including deer.
"They seem to know by instinct which ones are poisonous," Brantley said.
According to a prepared statement from the National Park Service, the Biological Inventories Project, of which the Penn State mushroom survey is a part, is an unprecedented effort to scientifically inventory the biodiversity of animals and plants in more than 270 parks. The project began in 2000.