The wonders of Fomes fomentarius

By Mary Perkins

The fungus Fomes fomentarius (“tinder fungus”), though easy to pass without notice, has an array of wondrous qualities that should be recognized. These range from wood degraders, fire starters, clothing, weaponry, and medicinal uses. It has a long history of being used all around the globe, even dating back to the 5,000 year old Iceman, Otzi.

Lifestyle of the Fungi

Fomes fomentarius is a dark gray hoof-shaped (Lincoff, 1991) saprotrophic (lives on dead organic matter) fungus that grows on dead wood or wounded trees, mainly hardwoods, “. . . particularly fond of birch trees, although other trees, including firs, can be the host,” (Stamets, 2002). The most important role this polypore (the fertile tissue is composed of many pores rather than gills) fungus plays in ecology is the break-down of wood. It has the capability of degrading lignin, as a white rot. Wood is a very hard substance that only certain fungi can break down, Fomes fomentarius being one of them. They help rid the forest floor of litter, acting as nature’s recycler. Imagine how high a pile trees can reach if they were not decomposed. Not only do they clean up the forest floor, they help soften wood to make it possible for insects and nesters, such as birds and squirrels, to inhabit the trees (Bunnell & Houde. 2010).

Uses of Fomes fomentarius

Humans have had an intimate relationship with Fomes fomentarius for many years. They have utilized this fungus for medicinal purposes, carrying embers, fire starters, weaponry, and even clothing. The Okanagan-Colville natives used the fungus to make antimicrobial teas and poultices to treat infections and arthritis (Stamets, 2002). It was used to cauterize wounds by Laplanders and the Cree to treat frostbite (Rogers, 2011). The entire fruiting body can be hollowed out to carry embers while travelling from one camp tfomes hato another. The inside of the fungus can be dried and is easy to light with only a spark. The fungus was also used to discharge guns, from the spark of the flint, to the fungus, to the gunpowder (Stamets. 2002). When the fruiting body is smashed it becomes felt-like, usable for clothing materials, such as this fashionable hat, (see photo).

Evidence of the use of the tinder fungus has been found dating as far back as the Iceman, Otzi. A 5,000 year old mummy was found, preserved in ice, with his clothing and tools. Among these objects was Fomes fomentarius along with flints, as part of his, “fire-making kit,” (Moore et. al, 2013). It is amazing to think that the same use of the same fungus has been in practice for so many years, covering a vast area and peoples. We are similar beyond borders.

The tinder fungus plays many roles. It is important to forest ecology as well as beneficial to humans. It is a decomposer and a homemaker. It can be weaponized or create warmth and healing. It may not be a pretty fungus but there is more than meets the eye.


Arora, D. 1986. Mushrooms demystified. New York: Random House

Bunnell, F. L., & Houde, I. (2010). Down wood and biodiversity – implications to forest practices. Environmental Reviews, 18(1), 397-421. doi:10.1139/A10-019

Lincoff, G., Knopf, A. 1991.The Audubon society field guide to North American mushrooms. New York: Knopf

Moore, D., Robson, G.D., Trinci, A.P.J. 2013. 21st century guidebook to fungi. New York: Cambridge University Press

Rogers, R. 2011. Fungal pharmacy. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books

Stamets, P. 2002. MycoMedicinals An informal treatise on mushrooms. Hong Kong: Colorcraft Ltd.

Vetrovsky, T., Voriskova, J., Snajdr, J., Gabriel, J., and Baldrian, P. (2011) Ecology of coarse wood decomposition of saprotrophic fungus Fomes fomentarius. Biodegradation, 22(4), 709-718 doi: 10.1007/s10532-010-9390-8

Prototaxites: The largest organism of its time!

By Harmony Counsellor

Painting a picture:

Prototaxites     It’s the Devonian era; 450 m.y.a. Picture yourself looking over the vast fields of sprawling land – nothing to obscure your view. As you can see it, the land is like a prairie but wet, very wet. You see some mountains, some small land plants, some bugs roaming around the grass, and a giant mass. Your eyes stop moving – you stop breathing. What could it be? All you see is this giant veil that could swallow you up. You don’t know how to respond, but you can’t keep yourself from moving closer. It doesn’t seem to move. As you get closer, it gets clearer. This giant mass has turned out to be the shape of a Rocket Pop (mixed berry flavor). The size, as we can compare it to these days, is about as tall as a tree – 26 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. (Prototaxites, 2014)

What would you have thought if you were a there? The largest mass you have ever seen on the whole planet. While it looks so tame on the outside, do we dare explore? As science stands now, we wish we could explore. The remnants of this mass we call Prototaxites is but a fossil we cannot figure out. Throughout the last 150 years, (Hobbie, 2010) thoughts have wandered between it being a tree, fungal, algae, lichen, or even a liverwort. We can say so much about it, but the identity still remains a mystery.

History of Prototaxites:

CanadianArcheologist scientist J.W. Dawson first discovered Prototaxites in 1859 and described it as a tree under: Taxus. (“Prototaxites, a huge…”) He discovered the fossil within a conifer claiming the fungi was decomposing the tree. 14 years later, it was described it for the first time as Prototaxites roughly translating to ‘first yew’. (Prototaxites, 2014)

waterfallThe next accepted theory was one of rolled up liverworts. Graham (2010) suggested that as the soil degraded the liverworts rolled towards the bodies of water creating these ringed structures. By 2012, many authors have disproved this theory. (Hobbie, 2010; Kennedy, 2012; Boyce, 2010; Edwards, 2012)


Though about 13 specimen have been found and identified (Taylor, 2010), Holland seems to have the highest population coming straight out of the river (“Prototaxites, a huge…”). The closest environment to the Devonian ages where protaxites was found is Lyman Glacier in Washington State!

But, what is it?

fossilBeing the largest organism in the period of existence (Prototaxites, 2014; Boyce, 2007; Hobbie, 2010), science is experimenting with everything they have. Since the time of its discovery we knew it was a giant land organism, but the time period is too old for any woody plants. Not woody, so what IS IT? The evidence of carbon isotope analysis supported by Boyce in 2007 suggests it is also not a vascular plant. If vascular plants are not an option, the only thing we have to go off of is Hobbie’s conclusion; ‘…land organism with the most recent anatomical work supporting a fungal interpretation’. (Hobbie, 2010) Anatomically speaking we have a giant mass that was neither a tree nor plant – but is it a fungus?

spore fossilWhat it was made of can also tell us what it ate. If you look at the other evidence, like biogeochemistry, it suggests we have an organism that consumes primary producers (cryptobiotic crusts, mosses, etc.).  Fact: Saprotrophic fungi are about 3% higher in Carbon 13 than their substrate. Simply put, you are what you eat. Carbon 13 is what plants use for photosynthesis and analyzing the amount of Carbon 13 will tell you what something is made of. As we look at our Prototaxites, it is depleted in its Carbon 13 and would have to consume autotrophic substrate (self feeding organisms). (Hobbie, 2010) Concluding that if it were a fungus it ate everything that photosynthesizes – other fungi and anything else in its way. If I were to make a judgment, I would say this is one mushroom not to be messed with.

Recent Evidence suggests…  

proto suggests Graham in February 2010 may have proved the liverwort theory to be the most substantial evidence of its origins. But Hobbie published his paper in March 2010 stating the pattern of circles would not be prominent ‘circles’ but more roll like. With those two conflicting sets of evidence, we are almost left with an unknown organism – so what is the last theory? The last supporting evidence points to fungi. It seems to be made of rhizmorphs or hyphal networks (fungi’s version of a plant root). (Kennedy, 2012; Edwards, 2012) What about evidence pointing to algae, lichen and liverworts? Well Edwards (2012) is suggesting that the algae and lichen are part of the fungi’s tissue.  Lastly, what we do know is this: The largest organism in the Devonian time period was an eating monster! Isotope research concludes that prototaxites ate – ate anything that photosynthesizes. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was in the form of digestion like fungi, but could be in any form of eating. I picture a giant fungus with teeth, what about you?


Anning, M. (2013, December 13). Awesome dead shit: Prototaxites. Retrieved from

Giant fossil prototaxites: Unraveling a 400-million-year-old mystery. (2010, February 10). Retrieved from

Prototaxites . (2014, February 09). Retrieved from

Boyce, C. K. (2007, May). Devonian landscape heterogeneity recorded by a giant fungus. Retrieved from

Edwards, D. (2012). Selective feeding in an early devonian terrestrial ecosystem. Palios27, 509-522. doi: 10.2110/palo.2011.p11-094r

Graham, L. E. (2009, December 03). Structural, physiological, and stable carbon isotopic evidence that the enigmatic paleozoic fossil prototaxites formed from rolled liverwort mats. Retrieved from

Hobbie, E. A. (2010). Carbon sources for the palaeozoic giant fungus prototaxites inferredfrom modern analogues. . Royal Society Publishing277(No. 1691), pp. 2149-2156. Retrieved from

Kennedy, K. L. (2012). Paleoenvironmental inferences from the classic lower devonian plant-bearing locality of the campbellton formation, new brunswick, canada.Society for Sedimentary geology27(6), 424-438. Retrieved from

Prototaxites, a huge, 400 million years old, fungus? or an enormous lichen?. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Taylor, C. (2010, February 10). Prototaxites: A giant that never was?. Retrieved from


A Very Tiny, Very Old Fungus

By Skylar Block

A very tiny fungus makes for a large discovery!

Amber mushroom

P. antiquus cap in amber.

Palaeoagaracites antiquus (palaeo meaning “old”, agaracites meaning “mushroom”, and antiquus also meaning “old”) (Poinar, 2007) was discovered in Burmese amber. The minute mushroom (cap being only 2.2 mm in diameter) (Poinar, 2007), is about 100 million years old. At this time in history (the Lower Cretaceous, Upper Albian stage) (Poinar, 2007), dinosaurs roamed the earth as well as other invertebrates that are familiar to us today including the ancestors of  sharks and crocodiles. Evidence suggests fungi were around long before then (about 1,500 million years ago) (Brundrette, 2002) but this is the oldest discovered preserved mushroom which makes it a significant discovery.

P. antiquus‘ age is not the only significant property about it. Scientists discovered not one but two other organisms growing on the mushroom! Parasitization is the relationship between two organisms where one organism is benefitting from the other at the other’s expense. There hadn’t been any evidence of mycoparasitism (a parasite that attacks fungi) in early stages of life until the unearthing of P. antiquus (Poinar, 2007). Pesky Mycetophagites atrebora was attacking P. antiquus before they were both swallowed in amber and preserved through the ages. The vegetative growth part (mycelium) of M. atrebora was found covering the cap of  P. antiquus and more mycelium growing in the host’s tissues (Poinar, 2007). Evidence that a toxic substance caused cell lysis (bursting of cells) of the host suggests that M. atrebora was a necrotroph (an organism that parasitizes and kills it’s host) (Poinar, 2007). But the joke was on M. atrebora because it was getting eaten, too! Third and last to the party was Entropezites patricii. E. patricii was also most likely a necrotroph as scientists found it’s mycelium invading and destroying the mycelium of M. atrebroa.  (Poinar, 2007).

Cretaceous landscape

Cretaceous landscape
Cretaceous landscape

Few other fungi have been preserved. This is due to the fact that fungi are soft- bodied organisms which make them susceptible to decomposition, especially over extended periods of time. Other fungi that made it through preservation include Aureofungus yaniguaensis (, Coprinites dominicana (, Protomycena electra (, and Archaeomarasmius leggetti ( Hot off the press, two “bird’s nest fungi” have just been unearthed in the Baltic area and the Dominican Republic. The specimens are extremely well preserved. The specimen hailing from the Baltic is an estimated 40 and 50 million years old and the specimen from the Dominican Republic is about 20-15 million years old (Poinar, 2014).

Bird's nest

Newly discovered bird’s nest fungi

Scientists enjoy classifying organisms that they find. It makes it easier to see how organisms are related to each other and helps to keep everyone organized. The need to classify and name organisms is difficult for scientists who study fungi (mycologists) in particular because little is known about even modern-day mushrooms. Imagine the problems they run into when naming fungi that haven’t been around for 100 million years! Luckily, fungi have distinct morphological (the structure and forms of an organism we can see) features that can be helpful during the identification process. This is what has helped to identify P. antiquus. Unfortunately, because mushrooms don’t like to be preserved, we often find very partial specimens in amber (Girard, 2010) which makes seeing these morphological features difficult to see. Normally, scientists could fall back on DNA analysis to classify an organism but what happens to DNA trapped in amber makes that nearly impossible. This is because very little DNA is preserved in amber (Girard, 2010). Some scientists argue that because we are unable to reproduce ancient DNA, because there is so little of it to begin with, and because of possible contamination issues, identifying DNA preserved in amber is impossible (Girard, 2010).

Although fungi preserved in amber is a rare treasure, we can be assured that they will keep popping up as we search. They may even hold surprises such as a three-tiered parasitization. Each discovery will help to better our understanding of ancient fungi and thus, present day fungi as well. Even if we are unable to classify the organisms with 100% confidence, it does not mean their discovery is insignificant in the slightest!

Works Cited

1. Albian. (2013, 30). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from   

2. Brundrett, M. C. (2002). Coevolution of roots and mycorrhizas of land plants. New Phytologist, 154(2), 275–304. doi:10.1046/j.1469-8137.2002.00397.x

3. Evolution of fungi. (2014, 20). In Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

4. Girard, V., & Adl, S. M. (2011). Amber microfossils: On the validity of species concept. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 10(2–3), 189–200. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2010.11.002

5. Poinar Jr., G. (2014). Bird’s nest fungi (Nidulariales: Nidulariaceae) in Baltic and Dominican amber. Fungal Biology. doi:10.1016/j.funbio.2014.01.004

6. Poinar Jr., G. O., & Buckley, R. (2007). Evidence of mycoparasitism and hypermycoparasitism in Early Cretaceous amber. Mycological Research, 111(4), 503–506. doi:10.1016/j.mycres.2007.02.004