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Mushroom Species Lost to Science for 36 Years is Rediscovered in Chilean Mountains
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Mushroom Species Lost to Science for 36 Years is Rediscovered in Chilean Mountains

Seraiah Alexander
Seraiah Alexander
May 31, 2024
2 min

After vanishing for 36 years, the big puma fungus (Austroomphaliaster nahuelbutensis) has been rediscovered in the Nahuelbuta Mountains of Chile. Thanks to the joint efforts of mycologists and local mushroom enthusiasts, this important find marks a new chapter in fungal biodiversity research.

An expedition team led by the Fungi Foundation and Fundación Nahuelbuta retraced the steps of the mushroom’s original discoverer, Chilean mycologist Norberto Garrido. In the early 1980s, Garrido embarked on a series of expeditions through the mountainous forests of southern Chile, documenting over 200 different fungal species. Among his discoveries was a unique fungus he named the big puma, inspired by the Nahuelbuta mountain range—‘big puma range’ in the local Mapudungun language. Garrido described the fungus to Western science in 1988, noting its unique greyish-grown color with hints of red and an indented cap. 

However, ever since that initial discovery, the big puma fungus had remained elusive, with no additional sightings, and it was deemed lost to science. The absence of this species prompted numerous, yet unsuccessful, searches over the years, but it wasn’t until May 2023 that it was rediscovered as part of Re:wild’s Search for Lost Species initiative.

“We knew it was going to be hard to find the big puma fungus and that the chances of finding the mushrooms were low, considering their colors and how they blend with the fallen leaves,” said Daniela Torres, the program lead at the Fungi Foundation and head of the expedition. “It was truly a unique moment when we managed to be in the right place at the right time to see the mushrooms. It was a big collaborative effort to make that happen, but these types of expeditions are essential to conservation efforts because an increasing number of species are threatened. Understanding the biodiversity that exists and interacts within a specific area helps us comprehend its behavior and its potential to adapt to ongoing changes and underlying threats.”

The expedition team set out during the exact same dates that Garrido had hiked through the mountains almost four decades ago, using Garrido’s illustrations and descriptions to find mushrooms with similar characteristics.

“It’s possible that the reproductive parts of the big puma fungus—the mushroom—are only fleetingly visible above the soil on the same few days each year, which made the timing of the expedition a crucial factor,” said mycologist Claudia Bustamante, a member of the expedition team.

The team spent about a week searching for mushrooms that matched the description of the big puma, but on the last day of the expedition, two local participants discovered a small group of mushrooms with striking similarities. The fungi were carefully collected and taken to the Fungi Foundation’s fungarium (FFCL), where they were tested for several months. Subsequent DNA analysis confirmed that these specimens were indeed the correct species. 

“It is the only species of fungi in its genus,” said Torres. “So that makes it very special.”

The black puma fungus was once deemed “one of the world’s most wanted lost species,” but this rediscovery is yet another reminder of the vital role that community involvement plays in scientific endeavors. 

“The story behind this rediscovery encapsulated all of the aspects that can help ensure a successful outcome,” said Christina Biggs, program officer for Re:wild’s Search for Lost Species. “These discoveries are often collaborative efforts between scientists and local communities, and since scientists think it’s likely only 10% of species in the fungi kingdom have been described, these kinds of partnerships are increasingly important since plants, animals, and fungi are all facing threats.”


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science
Seraiah Alexander

Seraiah Alexander

Content Editor

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