Bioluminescence in the Bush: Glow in the Dark Mushrooms in Stewart Island
Discover the magic of glowing mushrooms, the mysteries behind their captivating light, and the awe they inspire as we navigate the shadows in search of these elusive, radiant organisms.
Rakiura, the Māori name for Stewart Island, translates to "glowing skies." However, on this adventure, it's not the skies that captivate me. Instead, under the veil of darkness, I join a motley crew of fungi enthusiasts, students, and mycologists, all with a common goal: to witness the enchanting glow of bioluminescent mushrooms.
Inspired by Australian fungi photographer Stephen Axford's mesmerizing time-lapse videos, I embarked on a journey to New Zealand's 34th annual FUNNZ fungal foray, determined to lay eyes on these glowing wonders.
Arriving at Oban a day before the week-long foray, I crossed the turbulent Foveaux Strait from Bluff on a ferry. I pitched my tent at the Backpackers and, the next day, hiked the Deep Bay track towards Golden Bay. There, my patience was rewarded with the sight of Armillaria novae-zelandiae, one of a few known bioluminescent Armillaria species native to New Zealand.
By day, these honey mushrooms appear rather inconspicuous, growing in tufts with caps that range in color from light tan to dark yellow-brown. The white veil and collar match the spores, while tiny black dots speckle the cap's apex. But as darkness envelops the forest, the magic begins.
Under the new moon, our group ascends the steep hill towards the Deep Bay track, using only red lights and dimly lit cell phone screens to guide our way. In the darkness, I rely on memory and touch to locate the honey mushrooms. The shared absurdity of our nighttime foray sparks laughter among our group. The fact that such a large group is standing in the middle of the track. Not strange at all if someone were to stumble upon our coven randomly!
In the company of Dr. Peter Buchanan from Landcare Research and journalist Anna Chinn, a bioluminescent fungi enthusiast, we observe the luminescent Armillaria novae-zelandiae. The youngest mushrooms, still shrouded in their veils, emit the brightest glow.
Taking Anna's advice, I catch glimpses of the faint glow through my peripheral vision, as if using nature's own night-vision goggles. I look down at the ground and start to see a faint white-green glow.
I pick up a stick and hold it close to my face. I see insect indentations and marks that snake along the outside of the wood. The glow intensifies with time. Laughing in disbelief, the “baton” is passed around, and it reminds me of The Simpsons intro and the uranium bar that gets caught on Homer as he’s leaving the nuclear power plant.
The glowing baton is handed to Dr. Buchanan to put in his bag to take back for analysis. The light emitted was so strong that it could be seen glowing through the bag!
Bioluminescence, the result of a biochemical reaction, has long fascinated humans. But the purpose of this light in mushrooms remains a mystery. Some theories suggest that the glow attracts insects that spread spores, while others propose that it deters mammals from consuming the fungi.
Throughout history, the enigmatic glow of bioluminescent fungi has been woven into folklore and literature as will-o'-the-wisps, foxfire, and even kitsune-bi in Japanese mythology.
The phenomenon was first documented by Aristotle in 382 BC, and centuries later, foxfire illuminated the needles of barometers and compasses aboard the Turtle submarine during the American Revolution.
We pass a massive glowing fern frond overhead. I pick a few honey mushrooms and hold them close to my face and see the stipes and veils glowing. Once our eyes adjust, more and more mycelium and mushrooms become visible.
Night after night, we would go out to where honey mushrooms were growing. I pick a handful of Armillaria and place them in a vantablack-felt-like cloth, and the glow is maximized.
Now holding a cold lantern, I make my way down to a bridge where others view Mycena roseoflava, which dot a tree branch, appearing like stars in the night sky. This was an exciting find during the foray, as M. roseoflava was something new to observe glowing. David Hera, a Ph.D. student and photographer from Christchurch, joins our expeditions, capturing the ethereal beauty of these glowing fungi.
A group wearing red headtorches and looking for kiwi stumble upon us. As we share our findings with fellow nighttime adventurers, the awe-inspiring sight inspires laughter and wonder in equal measure. We can't help but think that "nighttime bioluminescent fungi photography" would make for a fascinating addition to any resume.
As we delve deeper into the world of bioluminescent fungi, we come to appreciate the delicate balance that nature maintains. In an age of rapid deforestation and increasing urban development, light pollution threatens to obscure these enigmatic organisms, making sightings all the more rare and precious.
Our journey into the glowing heart of New Zealand's forests serves as a poignant reminder that there is still so much to uncover, so many secrets waiting to be unearthed. The world of bioluminescent fungi, much like the forest itself, is a place of wonder and mystery, where the line between science and magic blurs, and the pursuit of knowledge is illuminated by the faint, enchanting glow of nature's own lanterns.
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