Look out for different types of fungi during your fall hikes

Plants and animals. Flora and fauna. While these phrases are familiar, they don't contain another kingdom of organisms crucial to local habitats. These life-forms are neither plants nor animals. Nearly all of their biomass is hidden from human eyes. Fall is one of the best times to see them in your forest preserves. They are fungi.

Examples include mushrooms, molds and yeasts. Flip through any mushroom field guide and you'll see astonishing varieties of shapes, sizes, colors and textures. Estimates of the number of species in the fungus kingdom vary. A 2017 study published in the scientific journal Microbiology Spectrum pegged the number between 2.2-3.8 million. Scientists have identified 4%-7% of the total.

More than 2,000 fungi species are found in Illinois. They make a walk through the woods this time of year even more of an adventure.

"Mushrooms force you to look at the woods differently," Restoration Ecologist Ken Klick said. "Search for them under decaying logs and plants. They're magical, the way they pop up, then disappear."

Fungi fun facts

Though scientists classified them in the plant kingdom as recently as the 1960s, fungi are more closely related to animals than plants.

They don't make their own food with chlorophyll. Instead of the cellulose found in plant cell walls, fungal cell walls contain a substance called chitin, also found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans.

The building block of a fungus is the hypha, a small tube that contains cells. Hyphae connect in large numbers to form a network called a mycelium (plural mycelia), the nonreproductive portion of a fungus. It threads through soil, wood or another nutrient source.

Like animals, fungi consume other life to obtain energy. Unlike animals, they don't track down prey and digest it internally. Rather, hyphae extend to a food source and secrete exoenzymes that break down organic matter.

The fungus absorbs nutrients that are released. Fungi are remarkably effective at processing cellulose and lignin, another tough component of plant cell walls. This helps make them "the ultimate recyclers in the world," Klick said.

However, fungi don't only decompose dead plants. Mycorrhizal fungi have mutualistic, symbiotic relationships with the roots of living plants. The plant contributes sugars and carbon to the fungus, which supplies the plant with water and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

Research is still underway, but evidence indicates fungal networks can distribute resources between plants in a habitat, almost like an underground shipping system.

Make room for mushrooms

The fungal structures most often visible above ground are mushrooms, also called fruiting bodies. Mushrooms release billions - or even trillions - of spores, which can each germinate into a new fungus. Identifying mushrooms takes effort, but the experience can inspire further appreciation and curiosity.

Leave only footprints, take only memories

We can all do our part to keep fungi in the preserves where they belong. While fall is a wonderful time to see mushrooms, it's never a good time to take them home. Poaching, foraging and collection of any natural material in the preserves are illegal. Those discovered doing so may be subject to fines.

Bear's head tooth (August-November)

Look for the bear's head tooth with its numerous white spines on old logs and stumps. You may also find it in wounds on living trees, particularly oaks, maples, beeches and hickories.

Chicken of the woods (May-November)

Chicken of the woods is a shelf, or bracket, fungus that grows on many trees, including oaks, beeches, plums and willows. By the time its orange-and-yellow mushrooms appear, it's likely thousands of mycelia have invaded the host tree.

Giant puffball (Late May-July and August-October)

The giant puffball is a fall favorite for many. It's smooth, white and sometimes as big as a basketball. It appears singly or in "fairy rings" in open woods and pastures. A single puffball can contain trillions of spores.

Hen of the woods (September-November)

Hen of the woods is a polypore sometimes mistaken for fallen leaves due to its earthy tones. It can frequently be found in the same place year after year at the bases of oaks and other deciduous trees.

Jack-o'-lantern (July-November)

The jack-o'-lantern is orange in daylight but glows green at night using bioluminescence. It is toxic to humans when eaten. This gilled mushroom is found at the bases of tree trunks and stumps, or on the buried roots of deciduous trees.

Little nest polypore (June-November)

Early in its life cycle, the little nest polypore can be mistaken for a cup fungus or a bird's nest fungus. The mushroom develops a cap as an extension of its cup. It grows on dead deciduous wood.

Oyster mushroom (Year-round)

The oyster mushroom emits a pleasant odor. It grows in shelflike clusters on many types of deciduous trees. The color of the cap varies seasonally from white to gray to brown.

Shaggy mane (May-June and September-October)

The shaggy mane is common in suburban areas. Upon emerging from the ground, its cylindrical cap is white with reddish-brown scales, but soon morphs into a bell shape. As it matures, its gills liquefy and produce a black "ink" containing spores, typically within 24-48 hours of emergence.

Turkey tail (May-December)

This is one of North America's most common mushrooms. A small polypore, it's usually found on dead deciduous wood or on conifers. Its bands of alternating colors are said to resemble the pattern of a turkey's tail feathers.

• Brett Peto is an environmental communications specialist for the Lake County Forest Preserves; this column was supplied by Kim Mikus, communications specialist for the forest preserve district. She writes a bimonthly column about various aspects of the preserves. Contact her with ideas or questions at Connect with the Lake County Forest Preserves on social media @LCFPD.

The bears head tooth can be found on old logs and stumps. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves
The chicken of the woods grows on trees such as oaks, beeches, plums and willows. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves
The giant puff ball can grow to the size of a basketball and contains trillions of spores. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves
The hen of the woods can be mistaken for fallen leaves due to its earthy tones. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves
Though orange in daylight, the jack-o'-lantern glows green at night. Courtesy of Kathryn McCabe
The little-nest polypore develops a cap as an extension of its cup. Courtesy of Larry Reis
The shelflike oyster mushroom emits a pleasant odor. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves
The shaggy mane produces a black "ink" full of spores as it matures. Courtesy of the Lake County Forest Preserves
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