Castles of Clay - Unearthing the Mysteries of Termitomyces
This past week I met with a few locals here in Kuala Lumpur to hike Bukit Gasing. This time we discovered quite a variety of species, but the most prolific being Termitomyces.
I am constantly amazed by the biodiversity in Southeast Asia, and Malaysia in particular, with some of the most miraculous creatures on the planet.
Some of the most fascinating aspects of nature can be found on a smaller scale.
For example, the termites that actively farm fungi are a truly baffling and interesting case study. These insects demonstrate the incredible cooperation and adaptation found in nature.
This past week I met with a few locals here in Kuala Lumpur to hike Bukit Gasing. This time we discovered quite a variety of species, but the most prolific, Termitomyces, stuck out of the clay on the sides of the track.
Around 50 were counted, their conical caps a dark shade of brown turning gray with age and long hard stipes growing deep into the clay.
When excavated, the smaller specimens were about the size of my hand, and the larger ones were the size of my forearm! Here is a small one I took home. Within 5 hours, the cap opened up completely.
A friend in our group mentioned the likeness in appearance to that of the Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey. And another Instagram user commented that they looked like candles.
Basically, termites cultivate these fungi in their nests and use them as a food source. The fungi grow in the presence of termites and produce fruiting bodies that the termites can eat. This is a mutualistic relationship - both the termites and the fungi benefit from each other.
Termites as Destroyers and Builders
"The difference between animals and fungi is simple… Animals put food in their bodies. Fungi put their bodies in the food." - Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life.
Termites are reported to consume between $1.5 and $20 billion of property annually in the US. In 2011, termites found their way into a bank in India and ate ten million rupees ($225,000) in banknotes.
Anthropologist James Fairhead talks about how farmers in West Africa like having termites around because they help the soil.
People in these areas will sometimes eat dirt from termite mounds or use it on wounds, and it's supposed to be good for you in a bunch of different ways. It can provide minerals, counter toxins, and even act as medicine.
And in the early 20th century, people in West Africa once used termites and their fungi as a weapon for political reasons.
They set the termites loose on a French military base, and the termites, with the help of their fungi, destroyed everything and ate up all the important papers. The French soldiers had to bail because of it.
In certain West African cultures, termites are seen as more spiritual and important than humans.
Some people think of them as messengers between humans and gods. In some stories, termites even helped create the universe. These myths don't just see termites as destroyers but also as major builders.
The Importance of Termitomyces for Termite Societies
The cultivation of Termitomyces is thought to be important for the success of termite societies, as it provides them with a consistent food source that's not affected by external factors like drought or predators. This allows termites to build and maintain large, complex nests and colonies.
Have you ever seen a termite mound? These things are engineering marvels - some can reach as high as 6 meters and look like little extraterrestrial skyscrapers dotting the landscape.
It's thought that the complex architectural structures of termite mounds contain microclimates that worker termites carefully calibrate in response to temperature fluctuations. But we still don't know a lot about these structures and their functions.
But that's not all - some termite species, like those in the genus Macrotermes, might be the oldest farmers in the world, albeit "fungus farmers."
New research suggests that these termites have been farming fungi for over 25 million years and are still doing it today. Talk about dedication.
It's also no wonder that the largest mushroom in the world is derived from these fungus farms - Termitomyces titanicus.
The Process of Termites Farming Fungi
Termite farming systems can vary from species to species, but here's how it works: after a queen termite gives birth to her first workers, it sets out to find spores belonging to Termitomyces.
Then, they bring the spores back to the nest and deposit them in a special cultivation chamber called the 'comb.'
The termites then excrete partially digested plant material into the soil, which provides essential nutrients for the fungus to grow.
The fungus sends out hyphae, which act like roots, and digests the plant matter provided by the termites, turning it into sugar. The termites then eat the sugar - a great example of circular agriculture!
Some species of Termitomyces also have enzymes that can break down lignin, an organic substance that's tough to digest. The microbial interactions in termites' guts that allow them to digest the degraded lignin are still a bit of a mystery.
Leaf-cutter ants have been observed to do the same thing, and this video is fascinating and worth checking out.
Malaysian Termitomyces Mushrooms
These mushrooms, called 'jizong' in Chinese, are popular in Asia and Africa because they're nutritious, have medicinal properties, and taste great.
The only problem is that they're only available in the wild during the rainy season, so demand far outstrips supply. Plus, they're usually gathered by rural community members.
Termitomyces species are known locally in Malaysia by many different names, such as:
"Cendawan susu pelanduk" (mouse-deer hoof mushroom),
"Cendawan anai-anai" (termite mushroom),
"Cendawan guruh" (thunder mushroom),
"Kulat tahun" (annual mushroom),
"Cendawan Tali," or
"Kulat Taun," commonly found in oil palm plantations in the Malay Peninsula and Malaysian Borneo. 
The most common species, T. eurhizus, T. heimii, and T. clypeatus, are highly regarded by local people for their delicious taste.
Eight Termitomyces species have been identified in Malaysia: T. clypeatus, T. entolomoides, T. heimii, T. eurhizus, T. microcarpus, T. aurantiacus, T. radicatus, and T. striatus, with most of these species being reported from Peninsular Malaysia. 
So far, no one has successfully cultivated Termitomyces mushrooms in a lab setting.
These 'fungi gardens' that termites maintain are a unique part of global biodiversity, but there are few examples of them in nature to study. Plus, little is known about the microbial and enzymatic interactions or the genetic composition of the few species that engage in fungal farming.
Termitomyces fungi found in Malaysia are an interesting and unique example of the cooperation and adaptation found in nature. Right now seems to be the season and I expect to come across many more on my forays around KL.
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