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What aquarium-going mycologist has not been struck by how corals look like mushrooms? Not surprisingly, some corals resemble the coral mushrooms (or vice versa), but others remind us of pileated mushrooms or shelf-like polypores. Without straining our imagination, we can see corals that look like Turkey Tails, hericiums, chanterelles, or collybioid agarics. Some have radial lamellae and look for the world like upside down mushrooms with serrated gills. If we look further, we may see corals that could be pass for ascomycetes or lichens. Of course, the "gills" and "stems" of corals are made of stone-hard calcium carbonate. No spore prints here. Some of these corals are called "mushroom corals," and we can readily see how they got their name. Many of them have unusual colors, not often seen among the mushrooms, such as greens and blues, but others have a familiar brownish or light coloration. A visit to the coral tanks in an aquarium may well titillate the imagination of the visiting mycologist.

What accounts for this similarity of shapes across such an immense taxonomic expanse? The ancient Greeks had the answer: the coral were petrified fungi! Theophrastus, who died in 287 BCE, wrote in his Treatise on Plants: "In the sea around the Pillars of Hercules... fungi are produced close to the sea, which people say have been turned into stone by the sun." Mushroom-looking corals were later described by Herbalists, the authors of books on medicinal plants. In his Historia Plantarum Universalis of 1650, John Bauhin described and illustrated them under the heading of Fungi Lapidei (Stone Fungi). He says: "Fungi arise in the sea just as on the land, but they are not soft, but stony." The view persisted until the middle of the eighteenth century, mainly because the nature of corals had not yet been elucidated. Some of these corals are so reminiscent of mushrooms that Lamarck called one of the genera Fungia, family Fungiidae, Dana, 1864, and these are names that are used to this day. Mushroom-loooking corals at times have genus names copied or adapted from mycology, e.g., Cantharellus, Oxypora, or at least evocative, e.g., Agaricia, Merulina, Mycedium.

Mushrooms develop their shapes in order to provide architecturally sound structures that amplify the area of the spore bearing-surfaces. The business ends of mushrooms, whether be they gills, pores, or branches, all permit the production of huge numbers of spores, thus increasing the chances of dispersal of the species. For corals, the reason for the pleated and branched shape is different; it is to support and increase the feeding surface. Thus, evolution has produced similar shapes, but for distinctly different purposes. It is not, then, appropriate to call this as a case of convergent evolution because in the end mushroom corals and coral mushrooms only look alike. Two different purposes have led to similar shapes, but that's all.

We are used to seeing mushroom shapes all over, in clouds (man-made and otherwise), rocks, and human artifacts. All these are above ground or on dry land, but one can look under the seas as well. The search for mushrooms shapes can literally become a fishing expedition.

I thank Bill Newman of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, San Diego, for help with the corals.

Moselio Schaechter, an actively retired microbiologist, founded Small Things Considered: The Microbe Blog to share his appreciation for microbial activities on the planet. His Mushroom Corals piece comes from an article that was originally published in Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushroomin, volume 67, pages 28-29, 2002. Reposted by permission.

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