Endemic species of fungus in Chile has been found after being lost to science for 40 years

It's a fungus that had only been seen once in 1982 and was rediscovered in the Nahuelbuta mountain range by the Fungi Foundation.

May 27, 2024

Alejandra Olguín

FFungi Staff

Encargada de Comunicaciones

FFungi Volunteer

The Big Puma Fungus (Austroomphaliaster nahuelbutensis), an enigmatic species of fungi that lives underground in Chile’s Nahuelbuta Mountains had only ever been found in the wild once in the 1980s, until it was recently rediscovered by an expedition team with the Fungi Foundation and Fundación Nahuelbuta. The fungus was one of the world’s most wanted lost species by Re:wild’s Search for Lost Species. 

It’s the first time the Search for Lost Species, a global search for species of plants, animals and fungi that have not had a documented sighting in at least 10 years, has rediscovered a species of fungi. 

"We knew it was going to be hard to find the Big Puma Fungus and that the chances of finding the mushrooms were low, considering their colors and how they blend with the fallen leaves,” said Daniela Torres, programs lead at the Fungi Foundation and leader of the expedition.

“It was truly a unique moment when we managed to be in the right place at the right time to see the mushrooms. It was a big collaborative effort to make that happen, but  these types of expeditions are essential to conservation efforts because an increasing number of species are threatened. Understanding the biodiversity that exists and interacts within a specific area helps us comprehend its behavior and its potential to adapt to ongoing changes and underlying threats."

The expedition team set out for the temperate forests of the Nahuelbuta Mountains in May 2023 to retrace the footsteps of Chilean mycologist Norberto Garrido, who discovered the big puma fungus and described it to Western science in 1988. They timed the expedition to coincide with the exact dates in May that Garrido had hiked the mountains more than 40 years earlier. 

Daniela Torres and Gabriel Orrego searching for fungi in the forest. Photo by Catalina Infante.

“It’s possible that the reproductive parts of the big puma fungus—the mushroom—are only fleetingly visible above the soil on the same few days each year, which made the timing of the expedition a crucial factor,” said Claudia Bustamante, a mycologist and member of the expedition team.

As they searched the forest floor in the Nahuelbuta Mountains, the expedition team compared mushrooms they found to illustrations and descriptions Garrido had made of the big puma fungus’ mushrooms. They were looking for small grayish-brown mushrooms with hints of red and stems that were thicker at the base than near the mushroom cap. Those were the main characteristics Garrido described in his notes, alongside a microscopical analysis of the mushroom’s spores.

On the first day of their expedition in 2023, the team found a tiny mushroom that matched several of the characteristics of the Big Puma Fungus, but it was too small to positively identify in the field. The team spent nearly six more days looking for a similar mushroom, but didn’t find any. 

On the last day of the expedition, the Fungi Foundation led a workshop and a community hike to look for fungi in a nearby forest. During that hike, two of the local participants found a group of about four mushrooms that all matched the description of the Big Puma Fungus. 

Big Puma Fungus. Photo by Catalina Infante.

The expedition team carefully collected the mushrooms, leaving the mycelium in the ground, and took the mushrooms to the Fungi Foundation’s fungarium (FFCL).

Argentinian mycologist, Dr. Francisco Kuhar, compared the DNA from the mushroom collected in May 2023 to the DNA of the original mushroom Garrido collected during the 1980s, which is stored at Munich Herbarium. The analysis took several months, but ultimately showed that the two were the same species.

Claudia Bustamante analyzing the microscopic details of the found samples. Photo by Catalina Infante.

“The story behind this rediscovery encapsulated all of the aspects that can help ensure a successful outcome,” said Christina Biggs, program officer for Re:wild’s Search for Lost Species. “These discoveries are often collaborative efforts between scientists and local communities, and since scientists think it’s likely only 10% of species in the fungi kingdom have been described, these kinds of partnerships are increasingly important since plants, animals and fungi are all facing threats.” 

The Fungi Foundation released a short film by Chilean filmmaker Catalina Infante that captured the wonder of the expedition, as well as the moment when the team found the big puma fungus with the local community. The film is available on the Fungi Foundation’s website and YouTube channel.