The coral tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides) has been described as our most beautiful species of fungus (2). It is a member of the group called 'tooth fungi', because their fruit bodies produce tooth-like spines (6). These spines serve the same function (producing spores) as the more familiar gills found on mushrooms (2). The coral tooth fungus is pale whitish in colour, and has branches from which long, fine spines hang down like icicles (7). When young, the species has a more 'knobbly' appearance and is said to resemble a coral (2).
WARNING: many species of fungus are poisonous or contain chemicals that can cause sickness. Never pick and eat any species of fungus that you cannot positively recognise or are unsure about. Some species are deadly poisonous and can cause death within a few hours if swallowed.
Fungi are neither plants nor animals but belong to their own kingdom. They are unable to produce their own food through the process of photosynthesis, as plants do; instead, they acquire nutrients from living or dead plants, animals, or other fungi, as animals do. In many larger fungi (lichens excepted) the only visible parts are the fruit bodies, which arise from a largely unseen network of threads called 'hyphae'. These hyphae permeate the fungus's food source, which may be soil, leaf litter, rotten wood, dung, and so on, depending on the species. (5). The coral tooth fungus has a relatively short lifespan because the logs on which it is found often rot after just a few years (2). Remarkably, considering its rarity, this fungus seems to be able to keep other species of fungi at bay and gain sole access to host logs (4).
The coral tooth fungus is uncommon and local in England, occurring in the south and the east (6). It is known from around seven sites in the New Forest (2). It is not known elsewhere in the British Isles and is rare throughout Europe and North America. It is a Red-List species in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Spain and the Netherlands (4).
As yet we do not know enough about the ecology of the coral tooth fungus to understand why it appears to be so rare (6). Possibly it is because the logs on which it lives rot so rapidly that it is difficult for the fungus to find a continuous supply of suitable dead wood. In many woodlands, particularly where they are commercially managed, fallen dead wood is removed (4).
Although the coral tooth fungus is possibly one of our most endangered fungi, it has not been incorporated into the UK Biodiversity Action Plan as a priority species (2). As is the case with most of our threatened fungi, we must discover more about the ecology of this species if we are to be in a position to conserve it (2).
Metabolic process characteristic of plants in which carbon dioxide is broken down, using energy from sunlight absorbed by the green pigment chlorophyll. Organic compounds are made and oxygen is given off as a by-product.
Microscopic particles involved in both dispersal and reproduction. They comprise a single or group of unspecialised cells and do not contain an embryo, as do seeds.
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