Within biology, mushrooms have sometimes been written off as uncomplicated organs that simply produce as many spores as possible. How far those spores traveled across a landscape, researchers assumed, depended on the whims of the wind. As scientists look closer, however, a more complex picture is emerging.
“Mushrooms are really the dark matter of biology,” says Marcus Roper, a mathematician at the University of California, Los Angeles. “They're everywhere, but they're horribly understudied.”
Roper and his colleagues used high-speed videography and mathematical analysis to investigate how spores dispersed, even in the absence of wind. In fact, as the researchers announced at a recent meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics, the mushrooms themselves manufacture air currents.
The trick that mushrooms employ to stir things up is known as evaporative cooling. Small water droplets, which appear on mushrooms just before spore dispersal, evaporate and create enough vapor to lift and actively spread the spores.
The new finding “deepens our appreciation of the hidden complexities of the humble mushroom,” says Nicholas Money, a biologist at Miami University in Ohio. “This is a beautiful example of ancient evolutionary engineering.”