Montana State University

MSU professor publishes popular book on mushrooms of the Rocky Mountains

July 28, 2016 -- By Jenny Lavey, MSU News Service

Cathy Cripps collects mycorrhizal fungi in Waterton Lakes National Park. Photo courtesy of Cathy Cripps.

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BOZEMAN – Years ago, Cathy Cripps found a mushroom atop Loveland Pass, Colorado. Hours later, she boarded a plane for Greenland and found the same mushroom species when she landed.

“I was amazed that the exact same species of mushroom I was holding in my hand 500 miles from the North Pole was one I had found a few days earlier above tree line across the Atlantic Ocean in the Rocky Mountains,” she said. 

Now an associate professor in the Montana State University College of Agriculture's Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, Cripps said her research on mushrooms and their habitats has taken her all over the world. She recently published a book highlighting popular mushrooms found in the regions of the Rocky Mountains.

The book, “The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountains Mushrooms by Habitat,” has been trending locally on a top-ten book list. The book is geared toward the public, land managers, naturalists and mushroom enthusiasts, not specifically researchers or scientists, Cripps said.

“We wrote it so that it’s accessible to a lot of people who are observers interested in their own environment,” she said. “It’s a different kind of identification book because the readers are already interpreters of habitat.”

The book is organized by habitat, rather than traditional species taxonomy often employed in mushroom and plant guide books. The book includes bright images of more than 150 mushrooms species, many taken by Cripps herself. Mushrooms and their accompanying environmental markers are categorized by Rocky Mountain habitat zones. Also included are ecological indicators users are likely to find around various mushrooms species, including flowers, birds, animals and landscape features. The book includes notes on mushroom edibility, odor and medicinal properties as well as a mushroom checklist.

“We organized the book as nature, not scientists, would have intended, because it follows nature’s pattern,” she said. “I’m sharing what I might expect to see in a particular habitat.”

“The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountains Mushrooms by Habitat” is co-authored with Vera Evenson with the Denver Botanical Gardens and Michael Kuo, English faculty and amateur mushroom expert at Eastern Illinois University. It is published by Illinois University Press and can be purchased locally at the Country Bookshelf or on Amazon.

At MSU, Cripps studies the roles mushrooms have within their larger ecosystems, namely their relationship with trees in Montana and other high-elevation mountain systems. Fungi provide a critical role in plant-based ecosystems by decomposing and recycling a variety of plant materials, sequestering carbon in the soil and providing nutrients to plants through their roots.

In particular, Cripps focuses on the mycorrhizal fungi that support whitebark pine trees and alpine tundra plants by providing roots with essential nutrients, allowing them to live in harsh climates.

Cripps focuses a majority of her research on Suillus sibricus, a fungus that delivers critical benefits to whitebark pine seedlings in the wake of disastrous effects from beetles and disease in forests across the West. Her research is also supported by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Cripps’ book contains a section on alpine fungi and on mushrooms found in whitebark pine forests. However, a warming climate is threatening arctic and alpine environments and the myriad benefits mushrooms bring to their ecosystems, Cripps said. Cripps – who received a National Science Foundation grant that provided funding for researching the role of alpine and artic habitat mushroom populations in the 1990s – is calling for attention to mushrooms as they become increasingly threatened in today’s warming temperatures.

According to Cripps, the tree line in cold-dominated environments is growing closer and closer to mountaintops, effectively expanding sub-alpine environments, eliminating the space for alpine ecosystems to survive and flourish.

“Eight percent of the earth consists of artic and alpine habitat that includes a host of fungi, flora and animals,” she said. “It would be an enormous loss to the world to lose these critical habitats.”

Cripps said still little is known about these small, yet highly critical populations of fungi in cold-dominated habitats.

“We have these mycological blank spots, we don’t even know what’s there, what species, who they’re related to and their greater ecological role,” She said. “These are very threatened habitats and we don’t really have a sound grasp of what’s currently there, so we’re working as quickly as possible.”

Contact: Cathy Cripps, (406) 994-5226 or ccripps@montana.edu

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