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'Spongebob' fungi pops up in Borneo's jungles

By Martin Leggett - 16 Jun 2011 13:39:0 GMT
'Spongebob' fungi pops up in Borneo's jungles

The wilds of Borneo turn out to be home to some of the oddest of organisms - fungi that mimic the look and feel of their cartoon namesake, SpongeBob SquarePants. Proving that scientists who spend months in isolation, amongst the dripping canopies of Borneo, don't develop a sense of humor failure - or lack pop-cultural references - a fungi-expert from San Francisco State University has named his latest deep-jungle discovery Spongiforma squarepantsii. And this bizarre discovery is just the tip of fungal ice-berg, with Dennis Desjardin saying that 95% of fungi out there in under-explored woods remain to be discovered.

The 'Mr. Squarepants' of the fungal world is sea-sponge shaped and jelly-like, and has adapted to fit in perfectly to its humid home. Bright orange when moist - and prone to turning a deeper shade of purple when exposed to chemical bases - this spongy inhabitant of the Sarawak forests was only discovered in a field expedition, undertaken in 2010. It was recently described in the latest issue of the journal Mycologia.

SpongeBob is very different from many other mushrooms. 'It's just like a sponge with these big hollow holes,' explained Desjardin. 'When it's wet and moist and fresh, you can wring water out of it and it will spring back to its original size. Most mushrooms don't do that.' That enables it to quickly revive when it dries out, just absorbing humidity from the air.

Spongiforma squarepantsii is also something of a loner - only one other species is found in the Spongiforma genus, in the Thai jungles more than a thousand miles away. The two species are, however, very closely related - suggesting that there may be more sponge-like fungi out there. Desjardin said 'we expect that it has a wider range than these two areas. But perhaps we haven't seen it in more places because we haven't collected it yet in some of the under-explored forests of the region.'

Although Spongebob may be the star of the recent fungal gathering in Borneo - the 'big game of the fungal world' as Desjardin said - much of the fungal realm is populated by smaller and more mundane inhabitants. Most of these remain unknown to science. But that doesn't make them any less critical a part of the ecosystem, with an army of fungi and mushrooms busily rotting away the refuse of the biosphere.

'We don't know what's there, and that keeps us from truly understanding how these habitats function,' said Desjardin. 'But we think that all this diversity is necessary to make the forests work the way they're supposed to work.'

Top Image: Spongiforma squarepantsii spores are found in the forests of Borneo. Credit: Tom Bruns, U.C. Berkeley.