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Mushroom Photographer Makes A Big Discovery


Scientists who study mushrooms often rely on help from talented amateurs. They outnumber scientists and are more likely to be in the right place at the right time. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris has this story of a photographer who helped rediscover a mushroom that hadn't been seen in the United States for more than a century.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The man is Taylor Lockwood. We meet in the hills of West Virginia, where he has been prowling the countryside in a van he has converted into a camper, a photo studio and a workshop.

TAYLOR LOCKWOOD: You can see I've been over the hill with all the dust on my car. But I have my gear, workshop...

HARRIS: And a pullout kitchen, stove and pantry included. More about his workshop and his inventions in a minute.

LOCKWOOD: I'm in my Edison mode.

HARRIS: First, the back story. Growing up, Lockwood spent the 1970s playing electric violin and other instruments in bands out West. He worked as a contractor. And in 1984, while living on the Mendocino Coast in California, he fell in love with mushrooms.

LOCKWOOD: Outside my cabin were these beautiful mushrooms. And it was as if these mushrooms looked at me and said, Taylor, go out and tell the world how beautiful we are. And I said, OK, I'll do it.

HARRIS: Lockwood bought camera gear and became passionate about photographing mushrooms. One of his images is even on a U.S. postage stamp. He says sometimes he'd dig a hole next to a mushroom for his camera to get just the right angle.

LOCKWOOD: I wanted to see them as a frog would.

HARRIS: His passion for mushroom photography has taken him around the world. And what he has found and photographed doesn't just have artistic interest. He, like many other amateur mushroom hunters, works symbiotically with the professionals, the mycologists who study fungi.

LOCKWOOD: I might have hundreds or thousands of photos of things that are unnamed or unknown or, you know, might be known some other continent.

HARRIS: He made one of those memorable discoveries here in the Monongahela National Forest. A few years back, he came across something he'd never seen before - a mushroom that looked like tiny fingers wearing off-white gloves.

LOCKWOOD: Like most mushrooms, I saw it as natural beauty, and that's why I took a picture of it.

HARRIS: He posted that photo on a website called mushroomobserver.org, where professional and amateur mushroom experts meet to crowdsource information. This site is the brainchild of Nathan Wilson, another amateur who started the project in 2006 as a way to display his own mushroom pictures.

NATHAN WILSON: I told my friends about, it and they told their friends about it, and it has been successful beyond my wildest dreams. And it's got millions of images on it from over 100 countries, and it's great.

HARRIS: And it's not just pretty pictures; it's a valuable scientific resource.

WILSON: There are many more amateurs than there are professionals, and the professionals often end up relying on amateurs - or, quote, "amateurs."

HARRIS: Expert amateurs like Taylor Lockwood, who provide not just images but data. His West Virginia photo caught the eye of Amy Rossman, who, for many years, ran the federal government's National Fungus Collection. She recognized the distinct form of this mushroom but found only three records of it growing on plants in the United States.

AMY ROSSMAN: Two on rhododendron. That was from 1888 by Roland Thaxter in Tennessee. And 1915 was one from Maine. Those are the three in there.

HARRIS: A sample of this rare mushroom made its way to a graduate student in Scotland, who ran a DNA test on it and verified its identity, hypocreopsis rhododendri. Rossman says it's not just rare, it appears to have a bizarre lifestyle. It doesn't grow directly on wood. It's a parasite that lives only on another species of fungus that forms a crust on branches.

ROSSMAN: But the crust fungus itself is not very big, so you'd wonder, how could you get a parasite that's so much bigger than the thing it parasitizes?

HARRIS: One hypothesis is that it essentially uses the crust fungus as a straw and sucks up nutrients through it. It's hard to study since most of the time, fungi like the finger mushroom live hidden as tiny threads that run through their hosts.

ROSSMAN: They're not like plants. They don't come up at the same time every year, and so sometimes it can be decades between when a fungus fruits.

HARRIS: That is when it produces a mushroom cap. Rossman says that's why it's so valuable to have people like Taylor Lockwood poking around through the forest.

LOCKWOOD: So I'm going to wander over towards the...

HARRIS: He gave me a flavor of what it's like by taking me back to the spot where he found the specimen a few years back.

LOCKWOOD: Who knows where it could be at this point. But, you know, we can look around.

HARRIS: Yeah, let's see. Maybe there's something. As you said, this is - we're not exactly mushroom season, but my feet are sinking into the ground here, so it tells me at least it's wet.

LOCKWOOD: Oh, yeah, it's wet. It's wet. Oh, here's something.

HARRIS: He reaches down to get a close look at a downed branch that has turned a color you don't usually see in wood.

LOCKWOOD: This blue-green is chlorociboria. It's not fruiting now, but it shows the blue-green color of the fungi in here. And when it has little fruit bodies coming out, they're beautiful, blue-green little ears.

HARRIS: Lockwood has been drawn back to this spot for his latest effort. And this gets back to the story of his portable workshop. A few years ago, he decided still photographs weren't enough. He wanted to make time-lapse videos of mushrooms.

LOCKWOOD: When I do time-lapse, you find that there's lots and lots of life going around the mushroom - insect life and worms and all kinds of things like that.

HARRIS: His art involves not only photographing mushrooms over time, but also putting his camera in motion to create otherworldly videos. At a campsite, he sets up a curved track made out of PVC plumbing pipe and puts a motorized wooden camera platform on top.

LOCKWOOD: This is the dolly, and it's all handmade stuff - my little inventions.

HARRIS: He plugs the motor into some circuitry he's built so the platform moves at something slower than a snail's pace while the camera is set to take a photo every six seconds.

LOCKWOOD: So I'm just going to set this up and leave it. I can just leave this. And I'm going to put a marker here, and we'll just let it go.

HARRIS: This is a test run to try out new gear he's built. It may be weeks or even months before he finds the perfect mushroom to video. But at 74 years old, he's a patient man and happy to be out in the woods making discoveries and making beautiful images.

LOCKWOOD: I love the science, but, you know, I'm an artist at heart. And I love doing this. I love finding beautiful mushrooms.

HARRIS: And sometimes beauty and science intersect. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.