World's First Amanita Truffle Found in Australia

SYDNEY, Australia, January 8, 2003 (ENS) - An Australian government scientist studying landscape rehabilitation at a bauxite mine has unearthed a new genus of the edible delicacies known as truffles. This genus is the first ever found in the world that is related to the Amanita family of mushrooms, famous for their psychedelic properties.

The find, by CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products mycologist Dr. Neale Bougher, demonstrates that Australia is one of the world's richest centers of truffle biodiversity.

"It's not just a new species. It's a whole new genus," Dr. Bougher explains. "Scientists have been looking for this round the world for well over a century - and here it is, in Australia."

Dr. Bougher found the truffles at the former Darling Escarpment bauxite mine run by Alcoa World Alumina Australia near Perth, Western Australia. He was investigating fungi there as part of a joint project at both Alcoa World Alumina Australia and Worsley Alumina sites between Murdoch University, CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products, Worsley and Alcoa.


Neil Bougher and Morag Glen from the project team studying fungi at the Alcoa site. (Photo courtesy Alcoa)
"I had my suspicions the moment I picked it up in the field," he said. "I got a bit excited, but I couldn't be absolutely certain. So I rushed back to the lab and put it under the microscope, and, immediately I saw the characteristic Amanita structures."

"I went crazy. At least, I am sure the people in the lab thought I was crazy. I was yelling, 'This has got to be a truffle Amanita,' recalls Dr. Bougher, who is usually calm, cool and collected.

The newly discovered truffles are white and range from the size of marbles to the size of a kiwi fruit.

Since the original find, Dr. Bougher and colleague Dr. Teresa Lebel of Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens, have identified five new species of what has now been scientifically named Amarrendia - a marriage of the names Amanita and Torrendia, the two families of fungi most closely related to the discovery.

Whether the Amarrendia truffles are safe to eat is not known, as Dr. Bougher says the specimens are so precious every one has been taken into scientific collections.

But no other truffle has proved poisonous, and truffles are a favorite food of native marsupials like potoroos and woylies, which disperse the spores again out onto the land.


Potoroos like this one may eat the amanita truffles. These small marsupials range from Tasmania to Queensland. (Photo credit unknown)
So, Dr. Bougher thinks it unlikely that they are poisonous in spite of their toxic Amanita relatives. Still, he advises against anyone eating them until this has been checked out.

Dr. Bougher knows his way around Australia's fungal world. In 1998, he published "Fungi of Southern Australia," a guide illustrated by botanical artist Katrina Syme.

"There is a vast and largely unexplored diversity of beautiful and bizarre fungi performing crucially significant functions and services in Australia's ecosystems," says Dr. Bougher. "There are many times more fungi than plants in Australia, and many of them have vitally important relationships with native animals and commercially important Australian plants."

"So far we've found nearly 90 genera of truffles and over 300 species here," says Dr. Bougher. Thirty-five percent of the genera and 95 percent of the species occur nowhere else on Earth," he says. "That rivals the uniqueness of our plants - and we're only scratching the surface in what we know about fungi."


Amarrendia truffles (Photo courtesy CSIRO)
Australia has a high diversity of fungi, equal to or exceeding that of other continents, says Dr. Bougher. "There may be 250,000 species of fungi in Australia, and so far only about 10 percent of them have names," he said.

Underground fungi, including truffles, are essential to landscape health. Dr. Lebel, also an expert on fungi, says they are "extremely important as a food resource for native mammals and, through their mycorrhizal associations with plants, may have large impacts on the health of ecosystems."

In fact, Dr. Bougher maintains, "we face difficulty repairing and revegetating our landscapes unless the soil fungi are in place to help the trees and shrubs to grow, and nutrient cycling to re-establish."

"Many mysteries remain unresolved in the Kingdom of the Fungi, and Australia has a big role to play in helping to unravel them," he says. "The truffle Amanita is an example of how much there is to find."