Fungi of the Sky Islands
Rising dramatically 5,259 feet above the desert basins of Southeast Arizona, the Chiricahua Mountains are the largest of the Arizona Sky Islands. The Sky Islands are mountain ranges world-renowned among scientists and nature lovers as biodiversity hotspots containing an immense range of habitats that are home to its fascinating flora and fauna. The mushrooms of this region are relatively understudied and include a number of endemic species. The Fungi of the Sky Islands program aims to explore this diversity and increase the knowledge about the mushrooms of the region by creating a richly-documented map and checklist of fungi we encounter using the iNaturalist platform. The iNaturalist observations we record will be an open-source set of data for any mycologist, casual or professional, to use for their research.
The Fungi of the Sky Island program is a multi night program during the summer Southwestern monsoon season that is dedicated to the exploration and documentation of the macrofungi of the Chiricahua Mountains. Nestled within the Chiricahua Mountains at an elevation of 5,447 feet in gorgeous Cave Creek Canyon, the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS) will be our base for exploration and study.
Typically, we will start our mornings (before the afternoon thunderstorms) by exploring diverse habitats such as oak-juniper-pine woodlands at the lower elevations, riparian areas, mixed conifer forests and aspen groves at the higher elevations, and everything in between. This field work portion of the program will include photographing and collecting macrofungi to bring back to the research station for further study and documentation.
In the afternoons we will return to the SWRS where we will review our collections. We will be following a simple, practical documentation protocol for recording our observations using iNaturalist. Select specimens will be preserved, i.e. dehydrated, to form a collection of voucher specimens for deposit into an herbarium. Participants will be familiarized with techniques for studying mushrooms beyond the senses that includes an overview of microscopy for mycologists and basic DNA analysis to give us a deeper insight into what might be the identity and taxonomic relationships of our collections. Select specimens will have their DNA extracted and amplified for DNA sequencing. Extraction, PCR and gel electrophoresis will take place onsite. Quality controlled PCR fragments will be sent out for sequencing.
In the evenings we will have both educational talks and lively guided discussions, which in the past have been a favorite part of the program among the participants. Last, but not least, the various habitats of the Sky Islands are home to a variety of delicious edible wild mushrooms which may give us the opportunity to sample the tastes and textures of different species.
Our main documentation tool will be the iNaturalist platform. We will be using the convenient app out in the field, and the feature-rich desktop website back at the research station. Participants in the program should download and become familiar with the iNaturalist app and website before beginning the program as well as create their own iNaturalist account. During the program, we will be using iNaturalist to document our observations. The observations will be automatically pooled into an Fungi of the Sky Islands iNaturalist “Project,” that will facilitate online discussions and create a resource for the future. Our ultimate goal is to create a rich data set with high-quality iNaturalist observations that ideally contain quality photographs, a DNA sequence “Barcode,” images containing microscopic features, date, location, and additional notes. This same data set also serves as a Mycoflora for the Chiricahua Mountains thereby contributing to the overall understanding of the ecosystem as well as being an open resource for any mycologist. It is our hope that the observations made during the Fungi of the Sky Islands program will not only expand our regional knowledge of mushrooms and assist ongoing research, but be the seeds for further mycological inquiries as well as both informal and formal studies.
The Fungi of the Sky Islands course is not a program for novices, i.e. students should come to the course with prior experience collecting mushrooms and possess a knowledge of basic mycology. The course will not include a review of the basics. Students should have an iNaturalist account before attending the course and be familiar with using the app and website.
- Knowledge of mycology fundamentals (know what a mushroom is, mushroom anatomy, basic mycology terminology & vocabulary)
- Experience collecting mushrooms and identifying them using a mushroom identification book and online resources
- iNaturalist familiarity and practical experience (must have an iNaturalist account and profile and have the iNaturalist app downloaded to a mobile device that can be used in the field)
Christian Schwarz, lead instructor
Christian Schwarz is co-author of Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, a naturalist, a biodiversity zealot, and community science advocate. He teaches Natural History of Fungi at UC Santa Cruz, and has lectured and taught identification classes and workshops across the United States. He is especially interested in fungal biogeography and ecology, and his recent work has focused on the Channel Islands of California and the Sky Islands of the southwest.
Bob Chapman’s interest in fungi began in New Mexico in the early 1980s, and he has searched for and photographed fungi extensively across the southwest ever since. Bob was one of the earliest investigators of the mushrooms of Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, and his discoveries there included several species new to science. He is a specialist on the desert-adapted fungi of the American west.
Dennis Sheridan has taught biology and entomology classes at both Cuesta College and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He is an accomplished nature photographer and an avid mycologist that has been teaching mushroom classes and leading mushroom walks for several decades. He first started exploring the Chiricahua Mountains and staying at the Southwestern Research Station while he was in college in the early 1970s and has been returning almost every year for over 50 years! It’s one of his favorite go-to spots because of its incredible biodiversity of not just mushrooms, but birds, plants, insects, reptiles, geology - all of it!
Harte Singer is a recent graduate from Cal State East Bay who decided to pursue his love of science after 15 years as a Chef. He was inspired to study mushrooms after years of collecting them for the table and learned DNA barcoding under the guidance of Alan Rockefeller. He is currently the sequencing lead for the Fungal Diversity Study (FunDiS) and runs a mycology laboratory out of his garage.
Damon Tighe’s first experience with the Chiricahuas was in August of 2019 for the inaugural Fungi of the Sky Islands course. He is based in Oakland, CA and works for Bio-Rad Laboratories training teachers on how to teach biotechnology in their classrooms. He worked on the Human Genome Project and the sequencing of non culturable microbes at the Joint Genome Institute. He became curious about mushrooms on the John Muir Trail when a slight miscalculation in caloric needs left him without food for about two days of the 220 mile hike.
Michelle Torres-Grant, program coordinator
Michelle Torres-Grant became interested in mushrooms while photographing California native plants along California Central Coast trails. Their diversity and mysterious ways piqued her interest, and she has been an amateur mycologist since 2012. To further her mycological studies and also to facilitate the sharing of that knowledge with others she began organizing mushroom education programs with Christian Schwarz beginning with a mushroom lecture and field trip in 2017 for the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society. That led to the establishment of the annual Mushroom Discovery program at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in 2018, followed by the Fungi of the Sky Islands program in 2019 at the Southwestern Research Station. During the winter of 2022 Michelle, as a volunteer for Pinnacles National Park, began a mushroom survey in order to create a list of mushrooms that occur at the park.
Jonathan Frank began researching hypogeous fungi (truffles) associated with oak woodlands in 2003 and helped develop and optimize DNA sequencing protocols at Southern Oregon University in Ashland Oregon. While training undergraduate and graduate students in field and laboratory techniques, he has described several species of truffles and subsequently branched out into the realm of the epigeous, most recently focusing on the Boletaceae. He is now working on the diversity of boletes in the western US and also has a research project documenting the fungal diversity in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, toward an adaptive conservation management plan. Since first visiting the sky islands in 2008, four of the past five years he has spent several weeks during the monsoons intensively collecting in the mountains of southern Arizona.
Rod Tulloss has studied the family Amanitaceae since 1978. He is the founder and co-editor of www.amanitaceae.org. Rod was part of a group of mycologists who were early explorers of the fungi of the Chiricahua Mountains (ca. 1989-1997); they called their work the Chiricahua Mycoflora Project (CMP). Rod maintains a personal herbarium with over 9,000 Amanita collections, including specimens and DNA sequences from 79 CMP collections of Amanitaceae of the Chiriacahuas.
Is the Fungi of the Sky Islands (FSI) program for novices?
FSI is not designed to be a program appropriate for novices. Participants should at least be at the advanced beginner to intermediate level. Please refer to the course prerequisites above for what that means as it pertains to FSI and what is required to get the most out of the FSI program.
To whom will the FSI program be most appealing?
Besides loving all things mushroom, FSI will be most appealing to people who are adventurous, inquisitive, and enjoy nature in general. For most participants, many of the species encountered will be new to them and quite possibly undescribed. The territory covered will be new to participants who have not already explored the region. The ideal participant will embrace these new places, wonderful learning opportunities, and enjoy the element of surprise! Also, the program has components that are oriented toward both group participation and independent work, so participants should enjoy both.
Does FSI have a set schedule?
Participants should be flexible. We will have a planned schedule, however, due to the unpredictability of both mushrooms and the weather our schedule is subject to last-minute changes, additions, and deletions.
Will I see an abundance of mushrooms?
By scheduling FSI during the latter half of the monsoon season it is our hope to see an abundance of mushrooms and a wide variety of species. Since nature is unpredictable and can’t be controlled there can be no guarantees. Besides mushrooms, the region has an abundance of interesting flora and fauna as well as spectacular landscapes. In any case, the Chiricahua Mountains are a very special place to explore and a joy to any nature lover. During the 2019 FSI program we experienced one of the driest monsoon seasons on record, which some referred to as the “Non-soon.” Despite that, we still saw many mushrooms and many species that kept us busy and engaged for the duration of our program even though there were relatively fewer mushrooms fruiting than during wetter monsoon seasons.
Is a microscopy class or workshop a component of FSI?
Because of scheduling limitations, we will not be offering a full microscopy course, however, participants will receive an overview of microscopy for mycologists and have the opportunity to see spores and other microscopic features of mushrooms. There will be 2 compound microscopes available for use in our lab as well as dissecting microscopes.
Should I bring my laptop computer?
If possible, participants should bring a laptop computer (ideal) and/or a tablet. We will be documenting our observations using iNaturalist, and the full desktop version is the most full featured and easiest to use. The mobile versions of iNaturalist are super convenient to have out in the field, however they are abbreviated versions of the full desktop website and do not have all features and tools.
Does FSI include a cooking class?
FSI will not include a cooking class, however, time permitting, we will be casually sampling some of the edible mushrooms we collect and discussing and demonstrating various cooking methods depending on what edible mushrooms we find.