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Lost and Found: How a Facebook Post Led to the Poisonous ‘Chocolate Chip’ Mushroom | Conservation

“The cap is like a chocolate chip cookie,” says Serena Lee, senior director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens Herbarium, describing the top of the sculpted mushroom (carved amanita). “He’s fat and stocky, and has a tan and dark brown cap with pileal warts.”

Despite its distinctive appearance and large fruiting body that can range from 10 to 27 cm wide, the carved mushroom disappeared in Singapore for more than 80 years.

It was first collected from the 163-hectare (402-acre) Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, one of the first forest reserves to be established in Singapore, in 1939, and was described as a new species in 1962 by botanist EJH Corner, a former deputy director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The toad species has been recorded in other parts of Asia, including Malaysia, Thailand, China, Japan and Laos, but is thought to be rare and has been put up for assessment for the IUCN Red List.

There were no sightings of the fungus in Singapore until August 2020, when a member of the public posted a photo of a curious-looking poisonous mushroom on a Flora of Malaysia and Malaysia Facebook group. Singapore.

The mushroom was rediscovered after a member of the public posted a photo of it on a Facebook group. Photograph: Adrian Loo/Singapore National Parks Board

“I love exploring different plants and fungi that I’ve never seen before,” says Serene Toh, who posted the photo. “What caught my attention in this case was the attractive color and appearance of the mushroom.”

Toh’s contribution is seen as a good example of the public helping scientific research and knowledge, which can help conservation projects. The photo of the particular button-stage mushroom, which Toh had taken in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, was passed on to Lee.

“My colleagues from the Singapore National Parks Board and I kept tabs on the species in the nature reserve, although we weren’t sure of its exact location,” Lee recalls. “A few days later, however… he was seen at the base of a shorea leprous tree, along the main road leading to the top of Bukit Timah hill.

“It was a magnificent specimen,” says Lee, who identified the species. “Its cap was 27cm wide – by far the largest unsupported type macrofungus we have ever seen in Singapore. Most species of macrofungi in Singapore have caps that are only 1cm to 5cm wide and barely exceed 10 cm in height.

It may seem strange that such a striking and “rather huge” mushroom could exist but remain invisible for almost a century. “Despite the large size of its fruiting body, its dark, dark colors help it camouflage against the background,” says Lee. “So it’s hard to spot it if you’re not consciously looking for it. It might just have gone unnoticed over the years.

Since being “rediscovered” in Singapore, the carved amanita has been studied closely. “Having the material allows us to perform genetic sequencing to develop a better understanding of evolutionary and phylogenetic relationships with other species,” says Lee.

“The rediscovery also highlights the importance of biodiversity surveys to take stock of the fungi and other species of flora and fauna that can be found in Singapore. It highlights the ability of some species to persist even in a small fragment of forest and highlights Singapore’s commitment to the conservation of key habitats and biodiversity.

The carved mushroom has been studied closely since its rediscovery and has been genetically sequenced.
The carved mushroom has been studied closely since its rediscovery and has been genetically sequenced. Photograph: Adrian Loo/Singapore National Parks Board

Lee hopes the public interest in mushrooms will continue. “We have observed growing public awareness and curiosity about mushrooms when people walk and hike in Singapore,” she says.

“By raising awareness about these species, more people can help search for them and document any sightings with their phones or cameras,” she says.

“Since we started studying them, rediscoveries, new records and even new genera or species have been found. For example, in 2021, nine plant, fungal and algal species from Singapore were released as new records or rediscoveries, more than half of which were found in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

“This means that a total of 124 new plant species, new records and rediscoveries in Singapore have been published in the past five years.”

Find more Age of Extinction coverage here and follow the biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and patrick greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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