Ask the Naturalist: Is This a Turkey’s Tail Mushroom? How Do I Tell?

December 5, 2017

I’m wondering if this is a Turkey’s Tail polypore. My husband and I were blown away by its beauty and have visited it a couple of times in our canoe near Toronto Harbour (it can only be seen from the water!) –Lacey and Phil, Toronto, Ontario

Thanks for the timely fungus question – although they’re a bit late this year, mushrooms have begun to pop up behind our fall rains in California. To answer your immediate question, the mushroom you’ve found is not a turkey tail (Trametes versicolor). Although quite similar-looking, turkey tails are usually more colorful, somewhat gregarious (growing in large overlapping groups), and are thin-fleshed with a leathery texture. However, you’ve correctly identified the larger, more general group to which both this species and turkey tails belong: the polypores.

This word comes from the Greek poly (meaning many) and porus (meaning pores). If you could walk around to the other side of the mushroom that you’ve photographed and looked closely with a hand lens, you would see a broad expanse of hundreds or thousands of tiny circular openings – the pores. This tissue is where the DNA from two parent mushrooms is combined, divvied up, packaged into spores, and then released into the air.

Like all mushrooms, the one you photographed is the reproductive structure of a much larger network of microscopic fibers called the mycelium. The mycelium, although mostly invisible to our senses, can be thought of as the true body of the fungal organism. Although mushrooms come in many shapes and forms, this semicircular hoof- or fan-shape is characteristic of many polypores, with the flat side attached to a living tree or dead wood.

Unlike most mushrooms however, the polypore you photographed is perennial, which means that it lasts for many years. In fact, each of the concentric bands visible on the specimen you photographed roughly corresponds to one growing season (sometimes this is equivalent to a year, but in favorable years, two or more new layers can be added). Hard, woody-textured polypores like this one are much longer-lived and more resistant to decay than the vast majority of mushrooms – this adaptation allows them to produce and disperse spores nearly year-round. Estimates of the total annual spore production for some particularly fecund species of polypores are in the low trillions! “Low trillions” seems almost a contradiction in terms, I know…

Only a tiny fraction of those spores survive and continue the cycle. Mushroom spores are very small (think five to ten millionths of a meter long!) packets of genetic information that float on breezes and air currents until they settle and germinate into a new mycelium. In most cases, they’ll still need to find a partner mycelium to mate with before they can produce new mushrooms.

polypore fungus
The pores of a Pycnoporus cinnabarinus polypore fungus. (Photo by Christian Schwarz)

Although this mushroom is a decomposer of dead wood (and thus a crucial recycler of carbon and other nutrients), other species of fungi play a wide variety of different ecological roles. Some form two-way, mutually beneficial relationships with trees and woody plants – this is called the mycorrhizal relationship, and it is an extremely important factor in the health, structure, and persistence of forests around the globe. Others are parasites, negatively affecting the health of plants and animals (and helping to keep population densities in check).

If you want to find more mushrooms, go after the onset of the rainy season. Mushrooms are basically just balloons – knots made of mycelium fibers that are then inflated with water. It usually takes a few good rains to bring the soil moisture up to a point where fungi can absorb that water and produce reproductive structures. Also make sure you pay attention to the surrounding vegetation – most mycorrhizal mushrooms don’t form partnerships with just any tree, but rather have specific preferences for one or a few related species of plants that they grow with.

Fungi are all around us in habitats both urban and wild, but our knowledge of their diversity and natural history is still lagging behind our knowledge of plants and animals. If you want to make a significant contribution to our understanding the natural world, join your local mycological society, or get involved with community of mycophiles through iNaturalist and Facebook groups – There’s so much we have yet to learn!

Me-with-King-BoleteChristian Schwarz is a naturalist currently living in Santa Cruz, the land of milk (caps) and honey (mushrooms). He studied Ecology and Evolution at UCSC, and now spends his time photographing, teaching about, and making scientific collections of macrofungi, and he is a co-author of “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast” (www.redwoodcoastmushrooms.org). Fungi satisfy his curiosity with their seemingly endless forms – from the grotesque to the bizarre to the sublimely beautiful. Besides dabbling in mushroom taxonomy, he’s an excitable birder, mediocre fisherman, and passionate about citizen science – particularly iNaturalist.

Ask the Naturalist is a reader-funded bimonthly column with the California Center for Natural History that answers your questions about the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area. Have a question for the naturalist? Fill out our question form or email us at atn at baynature.org!

About the Author

Christian Schwarz is a naturalist currently living in Santa Cruz, the land of milk (caps) and honey (mushrooms). He studied Ecology and Evolution at UCSC, and now spends his time photographing, teaching about, and making scientific collections of macrofungi, and he is a co-author of “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast” (www.redwoodcoastmushrooms.org). Fungi satisfy his curiosity with their seemingly endless forms – from the grotesque to the bizarre to the sublimely beautiful. Besides dabbling in mushroom taxonomy, he’s an excitable birder, mediocre fisherman, and passionate about citizen science – particularly iNaturalist.

Read This Next

Focus on Gulls

Sunday, December 16 @ 11:00 am - 2:00 pm | Free

This walk is for ages 18 and up. Gulls are certainly challenging but with a few tricks and a little patience we’ll learn to differentiate between the species we regularly see here in winter. We'll discuss

Learn More