The Scaley-stalked puffball – a new mushroom for the Maltese Islands

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The Scaley-stalked puffball - a new mushroom for the Maltese IslandsEcoGozo has said that its main goal within the Ministry for Gozo is that to “improve the quality of life in Gozo through several aspects that involve the society, while embracing a sustainable development.”

It said that, “this is achieved from various areas that influence each one of us, but perhaps the most important is that to safeguard the environment for us and our future generations through the conservation and awareness on our natural habitats and their rich biodiversity they offer.”

In the last decades, the Government and environmental NGOs have accomplished a huge effort to promote awareness and conservation strategies on the biodiversity of the flora and fauna of the Maltese Islands, but the kingdom of fungi, commonly known as ‘mushrooms’ has been not given that much attention yet.

EcoGozo said that it is the first governmental entity which incorporate mycological research to help the society understand the mystery behind this rather unfamiliar realm of life.

As remarked by the European Committee on the Conservation of Fungi, in many countries fungi are neglected, probably because of their difficult identification often requiring a professional laboratory-based mycologist and likely because they have unobtrusive colours and a sedimentary life.

Following an article published by EcoGozo in gozonews.com last June dealing with three species of fungi new for the Maltese Islands, of which one (Morchella galilaea) was also new for western Europe, another new species has been discovered by Stephen Mifsud, resident botanist and mycologist of EcoGozo.

Stephen describes below, his latest discovery of this new species for the Maltese Islands.

“Two small populations of an odd-looking mushroom, one in Fgura, Malta and one in Victoria, Gozo has been observed in May and June 2017 respectively. Investigations in the mycology Lab located at the Xewkija Research Farm (Ministry for Gozo) were carried out shortly afterwards and the results were studied recently during this late summer.

The fungus was determined as Battarrea phalloides, commonly known as the Scaley-stalked puffball, Sandy stiltball, or Desert stalked puffball, all curious names attributed to the shape of this fungus, but at least more decent than the meaning of the latinised botanical name.

The fungus is about 25cm tall and has an irregular, hemispherical cap of about 6cm diameter sitting on erect stalk. Unlike most mushrooms, it has neither pores (like boletes) nor gills (like button mushrooms) but consists of a solid sac which ruptures across its perimeter to expose its spore-bearing tissue. This will gradually erode and release powdery masses of spores in the air with wind or rain.

When this mushroom is manually agitated or shaken, a conspicuous cloud of brown spores is released from the sac. Billions of spores are eventually released during the lifetime of one individual, each of which can give rise to a new mushroom, but in practice only a tiny fraction will be successful to complete the sexual cycle of the species.

Such mushrooms were once called Gasteromycetes, which literally mean stomach mushroom possibly because of the sac-like morphology they bear. The stalk is tall and cylindrical and covered by soft rectangular and fuzzy-looking scales that are initially white but become dusted in rusty-brown spores.

Battarrea phalloides is adapted to grow in dry habitats, sometimes in sand or dry soil, but in Malta it was found under Casuarina trees on quite degraded but very dry soil. The fungus is not edible, but has a strong scent of walnuts when drying out, which actually, it is quite appetising!

A very closely related species belonging to Europe, Battarrea stevenii has been disputed by mycologists to be the same species as Battarrea phalloides – a debate which is still ongoing, although recent DNA analysis is confirming that there is no coherent distinction.

Mycologist defending Battarrea stevenii as a distinct species retain that it differs from B. phalloides in having a viscous cap when young. This species of fungus is rare in Europe and is currently a candidate for red-listing of European Fungi.”

Mr Mifsud said that is has contacted the ECCF about the finding of this species from Malta.

He said that closely related is Montagnea arenaria, another mushroom species which grows on the sand dunes of Ramla l-Hamra, Gozo and which is not reported from mainland Malta in the last decades.

“Like Battarrea, it is also a Gasteromycete, and in a same morphological fashion, it has a charcoal-black sac which erodes gradually by wind to disperse its spores far away.” Mifsud commented that, many find it fascinating to learn that mushrooms can grow on dry and desert-like habitats.

The Desert stalked puffball (Battarrea phalloides) – a new species of fungus from the Maltese Photo: Stephen Mifsud (EcoGozo, Ministry for Gozo).

 

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