Saturday, 24 January 2015

Busting the “No Known Poisonous Polypores” Myth: Hapalopilus nidulans

Cap of Hapalopilus nidulans
The cap of Hapalopilus nidulans starts out finely tomentose
but becomes glabrous with age.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read this phrase over the past couple of years: “There are no known poisonous polypores.” I see it mostly on internet forums, and mostly on threads about edible or medicinal fungi. Someone will excitedly post a photo of their first “chicken of the woods” (Laetiporus sp.) or “reishi” (Ganoderma sp.), photos that regularly, and clearly, show that the poster has got the wrong ID. This happens unbelievably frequently with the fad medicinal, “chaga” (Inonotus obliquus). A photo of a burl or gall, growing on the trunk of a tree that is obviously not a Betulina of any sort, will be posted as “chaga” and everyone will chime in their congratulations and suggest that the finder immediately race back to hack away at a living tree with a hatchet to claim his or her "prize." When someone sensible suggests that one of the above IDs may be flawed, another poster will jump in with the claim that a misidentification doesn’t matter anyway since “there are no known poisonous polypores.”

Well, it’s not true. There is at least one seriously toxic polypore, Hapalopilus nidulans (H. rutilans).  

Hapalopilus nidulans can be overlooked since it's often
quite small and frequently grows alone.

H. nidulans is an unassuming, cinnamon-coloured polypore that can grow up to 10 cm wide, though it's usually considerably smaller. It has a rough or smooth cap and small angular pores, 2-4 per millimetre. When fresh, its flesh is soft and watery; when dry it's tough and hard and can be quite brittle. A white rot agent, it prefers a wide variety of deciduous trees, but can occasionally be found on conifers. Though it's widely distributed east of the Rockies, it's not particularly common. 

small, angular pores of Hapalopilus nidulans (H. rutilans)
The small, angular pores of Hapalopilus nidulans

An Impressive Chemical Reaction

Basically, it's an easily overlooked, unexciting fungus—unless you happen to have some KOH handy, or a bottle of ammonia tucked under your kitchen sink. Personally, I loathe the smell of ammonia, probably because I once had a 19-year-old cat that could no longer find its box. Though that cat is long dead, I still put up with the stink of ammonia since this inexpensive cleaning solution is a wonderful tool for any fungiphile as many species of bolete undergo specific colour changes when hit with a drop of it—as does H. nidulans.

When this otherwise boring fungus comes into contact with either ammonia or KOH, it immediately turns a psychedelic fuchsia (or cherry red in other parts of the world), a reaction that's so magical and so spectacular it's hard not to play with the effect over and over again. At least it is for me. It's also a fabulous part of anyone's arsenal of ultra-cool things to get kids interested in mycology, along with reconstituting jelly fungi and locking children in dark closets with bioluminescent mushrooms. H. nidulans is also much sought after as a natural dyeing agent that—again with the help of ammonia—produces purples that are both more vivid and more fast than those produced by other fungi.

Hapalopilus nidulans turns purple with KOH or ammonia
A drop of KOH or ammonia on Hapalopilus turns it a crazy purple/fuchsia
—though not as crazy as these web colours are making it look.


And apparently there's also nothing boring about eating this humble little character, though, from the sound of it, there's nothing pleasant about it either. The few cases of poisonings on record, including one adult and two children in the late Eighties, and a father and daughter a couple of years ago, (the latter incident involving the consumption of H. nidulans after misidentifying it as the "beefsteak fungus," Fistulina hepatica), have all been similar in their descriptions of signs and symptoms that happen after a delay of at least 12 hours, the results of dysregulation of central nervous system functions and liver and kidney dysfunction:
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • headache
  • visual disturbances, including double vision, blurred vision, hallucinations
  • multidirectional involuntary eye movements
  • balance disorders 
  • general weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • signs of liver and kidney failure
  • and violet-coloured urine
The culprit is likely polyporic acid, which can make up an astonishing 40% of H. nidulans by weight. In a lab study, rats given straight polyporic acid via probang developed "strongly reduced locomotor activity, depressed visual placing response and impaired wire manoeuvre," as well as hepatorenal failure and low blood potassium and calcium levels, symptoms that closely parallel those of the people who ate the fungus. I am not sure if the urine of these poisoned rats turned purple or not—but I bet a cat's would! 

Poisonous polypore Hapalopilus nidulans
Hapalopilus nidulans is watery and soft when fresh and often feasted
on by slugs that are, presumably, unaffected by polyporic acid.
As noted above, the father and daughter poisoned by H. nidulans mistook it for Fistulina hepatica, which is a well-known edible. I have to assume they were not experienced foragers since there are very clear differences between Hapalopilus and Fistulina. Unlike the soft, fibrous flesh of H. nidulans, the flesh of F. hepatica is strangey meat-like, streaky whitish and reddish, and "bleeds" a reddish liquid when squeezed. The surface texture of both cap and stem is finely, and peculiarly pebbly. The tubes on the undersurface are also completely different—easily separable because they are not fused together as they are in most polypores (see my Cyphelloid Wannabes post for more info). 

Fistulina hepatica
Two people poisoned by Hapalopilus nidulans mistook it
for an edible 
Fistulina hepatica, like this one.
Fistulina hepatica cross-section
Fistulina hepatica has separate, unfused tubes and the
flesh is much more meat-like than 
Hapalopilus nidulans.

References & Resources:

Michael W. Beug, Polyporic Acid in Fungi: A Brief Note, McIlvainea, Vol. 21

Kraft, J., S. Bauer, G. Keihoff, J. Mieersch, D. Wend, D Riemann, R. Hirschelmann, H-J Holzhausen, J. Langer. 1998. Biological effects of the dihydroorotate dehydrogenase inhibitor polyporic acid, a toxic constituent of the mushroom, Hapalopilus rutilans, in rats and humans. Arch Toxicol 72:711-721.

Villa AF, Saviuc P, Langrand J, Favre G, Chataignerl D, Garnier R: Tender Nesting Polypore (Hapalopilus rutilans) poisoning: report of two cases. Clin Toxicol (Phila); 2013 Sep-Oct;51(8):798-800

The only other known cause of purple urine

Species descriptions of Hapalopilus nidulans

Friday, 2 January 2015

"Eyelash Cups" on Moose and Deer Dung: Cheilymenia stercorea

deer dung

Okay, go ahead, call me weird, but ever since I found Pseudombrophila porcina polka-dotting my dog's poop last spring I've been getting down on my hands and knees in the woods to closely inspect the dung of other animals. If I see something that could be something, I bring it close to my eye so I can magnify it with my loupe.

Handling dung isn't really a stretch for me. I'm an organic gardener, so I've been intimately familiar with livestock manure for going on thirty years. Black gold, we call it. We top-dress perennials with it in the fall, dig it into the vegetable garden in the spring, and brew hundred-gallon vats of manure tea throughout the summer to use for watering. 

Cheilymenia stercorea apothecia
A small cluster of Cheilymenia stercorea apothecia on a moose pellet...

Cheilymenia stercorea apothecia on deer droppings
...and on deer dung.
Since there's a healthy population of deer where we live, there are also plenty of piles of deer droppings in my foray woods, so these have been my primary sources for finding all kinds of mini coprophilous ascomycetes. I also stray a couple of hours further north a few times each season into moose habitat, and it was on one of these forays that I found my first Cheilymenia stercorea that were large enough (2 mm diam.!) to spot without the assistance of magnification. Since then I've found three more fruitings of these eyelash-rimmed orange disks on local deer droppings. Apparently they also commonly colonize horse and cow manure, though I haven't yet found any on my garden supply.

illustration of dung fungus 1790 Bulliard, including Cheilymenia stercorea
An illustration of Cheilymenia stercorea (Fig. II) from 1790, back when its name was Peziza ciliata. (Bulliard)
My favourite thing about these little guys is what their hairs look like under the microscope. Compared to their cylindrical asci, which, at about 200 µ, aren't exactly short (at least for asci), their hairs are gigantic—and spectacularly graphic. Some are multi-septate, others have barely any divisions at all, while a third type found lower on the apothecia are diagnostically stellate with two to five septate arms projecting from swollen basal cells. 

micro of hairs and asci of Cheilymenia stercorea
Cheilymenia stercorea hairs and asci 

Cheilymenia stercorea hairs dwarf the asci.

Two three-pronged stellate hairs

Cheilymenia stercorea stellate hair
A four-armed stellate hair

Cheilymenia stercorea is considered to be an obligate dung decomposer—it never shows up anywhere else. There are several other outwardly similar Cheilymenia speciesthat also grow on dung, such as C. fimicola and C. raripila, but these lack the basal stellate hairs

The spores of all Cheilymenia have an outer layer that loosens into a floating sheath around the spore "when heated in lactic acid." I haven't tried this treatment yet, as I'm not sure how one would go about doing it. It sounds so wonderfully arcane that I would like to try it. Could I just do a mount with a drop of my fermented dill pickle brine and hold a match underneath? Would that work? Perhaps someone with more experience could give me some tips.

Cheilymenia stercorea spores, asci, paraphyses
Cheilymenia stercorea has smooth, ellipsoid spores, slightly
 clavate paraphyses and long, slender, cylindrical asci.

References & Resources:

Denison, William C., The Genus Cheilymenia in North America, MycologiaVol. 56, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 1964), pp. 718-737

Ascomycete Fungi of North America: A Mushroom Reference Guide, Michael Beug, Alan E. Bessette, Arleen R. Bessette, University of Texas Press, 2014