Ep. 36: Uncharted Mushrooms - Tropical Fungi in South America and Central Africa (feat. Prof. Terry Henkel)

Today on Mushroom Hour we are honored to be joined by Terry Henkel, Professor of Botany at Humboldt State University. Terry boasts a Masters in Botany from the University of Wyoming and a PhD in Botany from Duke University. Terry’s main body of research investigates macrofungal biodiversity and ecological relationships in the remote tropical rainforests of South America's Guiana Shield and the Guineo-Congolian region of Central Africa.

We venture to the heartland of Ohio and find young Terry Henkel exploring the outdoors and immersed in the transformative works of Alan Watts, Joseph Campbell and Andrew Weil. Terry discovered his passion for ecology and mycology at Ohio University before sinking his teeth into a PhD project studying arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in Wyoming.   

It was a fateful roadtrip from Wyoming to Florida which set Terry on a path to studying tropical fungi in some of the most unexplored areas on Earth. Falling in love with the jungles in Guyana, a remote country in northern South America, Terry discovered ectomycorrhizal mushrooms like amanitas, chanterelles and boletes that should not have been there! It is commonly assumed that in incredibly biodiverse tropical regions, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (which do not produce mushrooms) are the dominant symbiont with native flora. He quickly went in pursuit of backing to study this tropical mushroom mystery and it would become one of his main research projects for years to come.  

Initially, his mushroom findings were explained by areas of typically hyperdiverse tropical jungle that have been overtaken by woody-legume species. These species play host to a huge diversity of ectomycorrhizal mushrooms - many that are unknown to science! In trying to figure out if his tropical mushroom discovery was reported elsewhere, a connection was made with similar woody-legume dominated forests in Central Africa. Having researched these areas for decades, Terry is seeking answers to the burning questions brought on by his fungal discoveries. Why are mono-dominant forests appearing in such stark contrast with tropical mixed forests despite no evident changes in environmental conditions between the forest areas? How much fungal diversity has been found and how much is left to be discovered in Guyana and the Guineo-Congolian region? Do the similar jungle forests in Guyana and Central Africa hint at a bio-geographical history of being connected at one time as part of the "Gondwana" supercontinent?!   

As we hear the detailed history of his research and the amazing findings his team has made in terms of fungal diversity, we also learn about indigenous populations that have become critical allies in allowing this research to continue successfully. Part of the mission of this research is to provide training for local populations in cataloging biodiversity. In Central Africa, Terry's research team also plays host to PhD students to give them field experience and encourage more scientists in these biodiversity hotspots to research and protect the flora, fauna and funga that thrive there.   

Episode Resources 
Prof. Terry Henkel's Academic Profile: http://www2.humboldt.edu/biosci/faculty/henkel.html  
Prof. Henkel's Tropical Fungi Research Website: http://tropicalfungi.org/ 
Gilbertiodendron dewevrei (Tree): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbertiodendron_dewevrei  
Dicymbe (Tree): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dicymbe  
Laricifomes Officinalis AKA Agarikon (Mushroom): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laricifomes_officinalis

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