Omphalotus olearius (The Jack O'Lantern Mushroom)

Interactions with other species

omp tree
In the animal kingdom, these mushrooms are found on the base of dead or decaying hardwood trees. Some of these include The Olive Tree, The Chestnut Tree, and The Oak Tree. The O. olearius mushroom is saprobic, meaning that it decomposes rotting matter and returns nutrients to the soil. The role of decomposers in nature is crucial to all life. Fungi, like the Jack O’Lantern mushroom, have unique enzymes capable of breaking down organic matter and bonds that are impossible for other organisms and chemicals to do. When trees die, they inevitably leave behind elements and nutrients within them. The fungi consume the nutrients from the dead trees and return the raw nutrients, such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous, to the soil. These nutrients are vital for life on earth, and decomposition of organic matter is a large source of their continued existence. Simply put, without the presence of fungi in our ecosystem, life as we know it would cease to exist.  

Fungi in general have a unique way of consuming their nutrients. When humans eat, we chew our food, allow our enzymes to break down the food, and then the nutrients are absorbed by our body through our intestines. In contrast, fungi excrete their enzymes externally from their hyphae. The enzymes break down their food and then they absorb the nutrients through their hyphae. This processes allows the mushroom to grow. The Jack O’Lantern Mushroom, for example, is saprobic so it excretes enzymes into the dead wood. After the enzymes break down the nutrients, the hyphal tips absorb the nutrients and expand further, growing into the material. Think of if as if you were to pour acetone on a block of Styrofoam. The acetone eats away at the material and dissolves the nutrients. Once the reaction has stopped, all that is left is dissolved matter to be absorbed, and a space in the foam providing room to grow into.  

As discussed previously on my
Introduction page, this mushroom is poisonous to humans. However, it is not poisonous to many other critters in our animal kingdom. Animals such as Squirrels, Deer and Turkey, and insects such as The Crane Fly and The Grasshopper can often digest poisonous mushrooms, including O. olearius, without fatal effects. The reason why these organisms seem to be able to digest poisonous mushrooms may be attribsquirrel eating mushroomuted to the hypothesis that evolutionary adaptations have been made over time to allow them to consume some poisonous mushrooms without fatal effects. It can be viewed almost as a “tolerance” to the poison. On the other hand, this can be explained by the concept that different organisms are capable of doing different things. For example, animals can touch and even consume poison ivy without harmful effects. Most humans however, get a rash if they come in contact with poison ivy. A physiologist, Brian Barnes suggested that the liver in these animals, specifically squirrels, might have the ability to detoxify the poisonous agents in the mushrooms. The idea that some organisms have evolved different adaptations to toxins is exemplified in a study where several farm animals consumed a toxin that is known to be poisonous to humans. The study revealed that animals with non-ruminant stomachs develop anorexia, lost muscle function, and eventually died. Sheep, who posses ruminant stomachs, were found to be less sensitive to the toxin. (Evans 1982) This study exemplifies that different organisms have different tolerances to fungal toxins. When given in extremely small doses, the toxin in the mushroom Omphalotus olearius even has been shown to completely eliminate tumors in all animals. This proved to be effective in cancer tumor types including breast, lung and colon cancers. (McDonald, 1997).The way insects achieve an immunity to fungal toxins is by their ability to create antifungal lipids. Much like antifungal creams you might buy in a store to treat athletes foot, insects produce antifungal lipids to treat potential fungal toxins that could harm them when they ingest a poisonous mushroom. In addition to producing antifungal toxins, locusts were also found to produce antifungal phenols as a fungal toxin defense. (Charnley 1989)

When walking through the wood, it isn’t a common occurrence that you may find an animal who has died from consuming poisonous mushrooms. In fact, reports of animals becoming ill from mushrooms have been rarely reported in our history. A reason for this may be explained by the following study. In 1975, a research lab wanted to observe the mechanisms that opossums used to deter from eating poisonous plants and fungi. They fed the opossums large doses of muscimol, a harmful toxin found in fungi. The first day, all of the opossums (100%) ate the poisonous mushroom. Shortly after they ingested the mushroom, 6 of the 9 opossums vomited. The next day the same mushroom was put out, and the percentage of the opossums that ate it decreased from I00% to 17%. They then waited until 70 days later to run another test. When the same mushroom was put out, 40% of the opossums ate it, showing that they remembered the mushroom made them sick. In addition, small dosages of the toxin did not appear to make the opossums sick. (Gelperin 1975) This concept of retaining food information is important and noticeable in all forms of life. Humans even fall victim to this method. Everyone has at least one experience of that fair food you at too much of and became so sick that you avoid consuming it again. Whether it be avoidance, quantity ingested, or a chemical defense, animals have adapted their bodies and lifestyles to the toxic effects of poisonous mushrooms, like
Omphalotus olearius.

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