Citizen Science

© Brian Perry
Original publication: Mycena News, May 2008

The enjoyable presentation by Nathan Wilson at the March General Meeting, as well as Dimitar Bojantchev’s excellent contribution to this column in the March newsletter, have led me to think quite a bit lately about the idea of “citizen science.” More specifically, the information and ideas expressed by Nathan and Dimitar have led me to consider the sorts of valuable contributions members of the MSSF and other amateur societies can make to scientific studies of fungi.

For those of you not familiar with the term “citizen science,” it refers to the idea that non-professionals can play an active role in scientific investigations, typically by helping collect the data upon which research is based. Some great examples of citizen science that have been very successful include the Christmas Bird Count overseen by the Audubon Society and partner institutions, and of course the Point Reyes Mycoblitz orchestrated by Dr. Tom Bruns of UC Berkeley, and sponsored by the MSSF and other local clubs. The Mycoblitz has relied upon participants primarily to get out and sample the numerous and diverse habitats of Point Reyes National Seashore, after which professional and amateur mycologists identify, photograph and make vouchers of the material collected. Both projects have made possible large-scale observations of organisms that otherwise would require the investment of hundreds or thousands (and in the case of the bird count, perhaps hundreds of thousands) of man hours, and have yielded large amounts of immensely valuable data.

What I am curious about, however, is whether it is possible for amateurs to make even larger contributions to our understanding of fungi (and other kingdoms, the answer to this question is an overwhelming yes, but there are a number of interesting factors to consider.

The first thing to consider, of course, are the various levels of experience and expertise that exist in the MSSF and other mycological clubs, and how this relates to the types of research in which members may be able to play a larger role. Not all members of the MSSF and other clubs are interested in the scientific side of mycology, and many are perfectly satisfied with learning to recognize and collect specific species for culinary or other purposes, and of course for the camaraderie that society membership offers. And there is nothing wrong with this! We all give to and take from the society what we require for our own needs, and this is what makes us a diverse and interesting group. For many of you out there, however, I know the desire to take your mycological interests to the next level is very strong indeed. The article by Peter Werner in last month’s newsletter on how to shop for and purchase a personal microscope is a perfect indication of this. I know that a fair number of the MSSF members own microscopes and, often much to their partner’s displeasure, spend many a weekend collecting specimens and many an evening at the microscope, attempting to identify and document their weekend bounty. Many of these members have become impressively knowledgeable of not only our local mycological diversity, but of that for other regions as well.

Pseudobaeopsora stevensii

As someone who’s research has often benefited directly from fungal specimens collected by others, I know personally how valuable the contributions of such taxonomically knowledgeable members can be. I do not know a single professional who would tell you that they have not had local amateur mycologists bring them exciting specimens, many of which have turned out to be taxa not previously reported from the region, and occasionally even some that represent species new to science! The simple truth is that many of you spend a great deal more time in the woods collecting our local fungi than do the professionals in the area (hey, somebody has to fly off to distant lands to study all those exotic species!), and this is where I feel some of the largest contributions can be made. The local species Pseudobaeopsora stevensii Desjardin, for example, was named in honor of MSSF member Fred Stevens who originally collected the material that became the holotype of the species. Because Fred has such an extensive knowledge of the local fungi, upon collecting this unrecognized taxon he realized it was something interesting and brought it to the attention of Dr. Dennis Desjardin. The end result was the documentation and publication of a previously un-described species. It should be stressed here that experienced collectors such as Fred know that quality specimens must always be accompanied by detailed notes on the macromorphology of the specimens, locality, and associated habitat. Without such information, even the most intriguing specimens can often be of little use.

Those of you who regularly collect fungi with the intent to bring material home to identify with a microscope and existing literature, know that there are many groups of fungi in California that have not been adequately documented. While professionals such as Dr. Dennis Desjardin and others have had numerous students prepare monographic treatments for genera as part of their thesis studies, there are many more groups out there in need of such work. Perhaps it is time for the amateur mycologists to start preparing monographic treatments for these fungi, complete with species descriptions, keys, and illustrations? Much of this would of course be a simple extension of some of the excellent work that has been done by MSSF members to document the fleshy fungi of California. A quick scan of the information available on MSSF member Mike Wood’s website, Mykoweb (www.mykoweb.com), will give you an idea of the impressive work that has already been accomplished. The knowledge base and expertise to prepare monographic treatments of our local fungi are certainly present. What may be lacking however, is access to some of the necessary resources.

As both Nathan and Dimitar pointed out, one of the most important resources to both amateur and professional mycologists is access to information, particularly scientific journals and the often hard to find taxonomic treatments of various groups (many of which are out of print). I know that several MSSF members are the proud owners of mycological libraries that rival those found in the herbaria and labs of professionals! But this of course is not an option for everyone, and many will have to rely on the libraries of our local universities and that of the MSSF. Memberships to scientific organizations like the Mycological Society of America provide a subscription to the society’s journal (Mycologia), and allow members access to the online archive of previous issues (back to 2002 at present, but expanding). Fortunately, there appears to be significant effort these days by both larger institutions and individuals to get much of what has been published, but is now out of print, made available to the public online (i.e. open access), including mycological treatments. For example, Mike Wood currently has an online version of Harry D. Thiers’ 1975 monograph “The Boletes of California” available on MykoWeb, and the University of Michigan Herbarium has a number of Alexander H. Smith’s monographic treatments available. The posting of such information in an electronic format, however, requires the permission of the copyright holders, and this will likely be a major hurdle to overcome for many out of print publications of interest. Perhaps the MSSF can play an active role in this by lobbying copyright holding institutions or individuals to grant permission for the electronic reproduction of desired works? A new MSSF committee? Such a contribution would benefit both amateur and professional mycologists alike.

A major issue to consider in all of this is the dissemination of information resulting from any studies conducted by amateur mycologists. If one is only documenting the species present, and not reporting any species new to science, it can be as simple as posting the information in an easily accessible format online. Once again, a quick look at MykoWeb and other MSSF member web sites provides an excellent framework to follow for presenting such information. The key to any scientific study, of course, is repeatability, and in the case of monographic treatments this means voucher specimens. Without voucher specimens that others can examine to confirm results, any information presented is only anecdotal. Aside from curating your own specimens and making them available to others, the best way to accomplish this would be to contact your closest fungal herbarium to inquire if they would be willing to house your material. You must realize, however, that most herbaria are constrained by space and lack of curatorial staff, and may not be willing or able to house your material. Perhaps the MSSF should start a fungus collection?

Of course, one of most exciting aspects of making these sorts of contributions to our understanding of the fungi is the potential discovery and publication of species that are new to science. This is a complex topic, however, and one we do not have the space to discuss in detail in this already lengthy column. I will simply say that because making such taxonomic decisions often requires examining material on loan from herbaria, including holotype specimens, it is typically necessary to be affiliated with a university or other research institution to do such work (herbaria will not loan material to unaffiliated individuals).

Members of the MSSF and other amateur societies have been making significant contributions to our understanding of the fungi at multiple levels, and all of it is greatly appreciated by the professional mycologists with whom they have been working. I think everyone in the group, no matter what level of experience with fungi they have, can make valuable contributions and take great satisfaction in the role they play as citizen scientists. I also believe that the detail and comprehensiveness of these contributions has the potential to grow. Each time I attend meetings and forays, or view member web pages, I am impressed at the level of mycological knowledge that is found within the membership of the MSSF. I hope that what I have written here, as well as Dimitar’s column and Nathan’s talk, will motivate and inspire many of you to get out there and play an active role in understanding and documenting our local fungi.