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With so many undiscovered mushrooms, citizen scientists find new species all the time


It's estimated that fewer than 1% of the world's mushroom species are known to science. So new species are being discovered all the time - and often by citizen scientists, not academics. From member station KUNC in Colorado, Rae Solomon reports.


RAE SOLOMON, BYLINE: When it rains in Colorado's mountains, the mushroom hunters follow close behind.

ALAN ROCKEFELLER: Oh, wait, wait...

SOLOMON: Take Alan Rockefeller.

ROCKEFELLER: ...This is a good one.

SOLOMON: He's a serious mushroom hunter and has become a well-known expert in the science known as mycology. And he's just found something interesting sprouting up from the moist forest floor at 9,000 feet above sea level.

ROCKEFELLER: So this bright, yellow Russula - this looks like the one I was finding in Arizona that smells strongly like bananas when it dries - pretty sure it's a new species.

SOLOMON: Rockefeller travels the world to identify, describe and analyze the DNA of wild mushrooms.

ROCKEFELLER: You know, I found the exact same thing in Michoacan, and it also occurs in British Columbia.

SOLOMON: But he's excited to find it here, in Colorado, because that means he can add pieces to the incomplete mycological map.

ROCKEFELLER: The mushrooms don't get anywhere randomly, so they're, you know, associated with the same or similar tree, or they got carried by an animal. But once you have enough points on the map, you can start to figure out a little bit more about what it's doing in the ecology.

SOLOMON: Rockefeller is deep in it, but he is not associated with the university. There are no letters after his name. He doesn't have a degree in biology or any degree at all. He didn't need it for his first career as a professional hacker. Rockefeller is very much an outsider scientist - one at the leading edge of a movement of outsiders making big contributions to mycology.

JAMES CHELIN: And that's exactly what we're doing here - is that we are advancing the science rather than just going and finding something to eat.

SOLOMON: James Chelin, also on the foray with Rockefeller, is still a computer guy by day. He's also the vice president of the Pikes Peak Mycological Society. He leads groups of the curious and the dedicated up winding, often unpaved mountain roads to help them find and identify wild mushrooms.

CHELIN: If we find something to eat, it's a bonus, so chanterelles are great.

SOLOMON: He's a gateway figure of sorts, escorting casual foragers deeper into the science of mycology.

CHELIN: Talking about identifying stuff not known to science - it's like, we kind of know that there's some different ones, but we don't totally know. And until we start looking at spores under a microscope and we start doing sequencing...

SOLOMON: It's common for new mushroom species to turn up in Colorado during a good monsoon season.

ANDREW WILSON: These last two seasons have been exceptional.

SOLOMON: Andrew Wilson has a bunch of letters after his name, including a Ph.D. in biology. He's Denver Botanic Gardens' chief mycologist.

WILSON: Because there's been quite a bit of diversity coming up with all the rains, sometimes they all become a blur.

SOLOMON: That's why he appreciates outsiders like Chelin and Rockefeller.

WILSON: The vast majority of our collections are from those citizen-science-collected specimens.

SOLOMON: The outsiders are extra eyes on the ground, but they also pitch in for the intense process of documenting those new species in the scientific literature.

WILSON: We're talking about a couple of years' worth of work to get the data and do all the proper vetting.


SOLOMON: But all of that research begins here, where Alan Rockefeller kneels on the ground, examining that intriguing yellow Russula.

ROCKEFELLER: Every time you find fellow citizen scientists through the woods, they're going to notice a lot of new species if they kind of pay attention.

SOLOMON: Rockefeller is in no rush to introduce the mushroom to science. Right now, he's solely focused on this spot in the Colorado mountains, where one more small piece of mushroom ecology falls into place. For NPR News, I'm Rae Solomon in Denver.


Rae Solomon
As newscast reporter I keep Northern Coloradans up to date on all the things they need to know NOW. Whatever’s floating through the zeitgeist at the moment, I’m on it.