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Scientists Identify New Edible Mushroom in Chicago

The Field Museum
The Field Museum

A sunny yellow edible mushroom has just joined the noble ranks of new species named for the Windy City. Writing in the journal Mycologia, fungus researchers say the Chicago chanterelle had been under our noses all along.

There’s a reason we missed it: fungus is kind of tricky. “Plants are there almost all the time,” lead researcher and Field Museum mycologist Patrick Leacock told mental_floss. Fungi are far more ephemeral. Some species pop up only once every five years, others once a year. They appear overnight and are gone just a few days later. “You have to be in the right place at the right time” to see them, Leacock said. To date, he and his colleagues have cataloged more than 1000 different fungi species across the Chicago area.

Leacock and his co-authors had seen yellow chanterelles there, too, but they had no reason to believe the mushrooms were special. There are chanterelles all over the place. Then researchers in other parts of the country began taking a closer look at the chanterelles in their backyards. They sequenced the fungi’s genomes and discovered that what had appeared to be one standard North American variety was actually a number of distinct species. One 2014 paper suggested that there might be as many as 100 unidentified types of chanterelles still out there.

The Chicago team decided to test their own wild specimens. During the summers from 2000 to 2014, they collected yellow chanterelles in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, noting the location in which each mushroom was found. They extracted DNA from 21 of their fresh specimens, 20 dried mushrooms, and one preserved piece, and sequenced each sample.

The Field Museum

 
Sure enough, the golden mushrooms nestled at the base of Illinois oak trees were a species all their own. Cantharellus chicagoensis looks a lot like its nearby cousins, but its flavor is more delicate and its aroma milder.

Want to find your own? You’ll likely have to wait until next summer, as C. chicagoensis is a summer variety. Head out of the city center and into the nearby forest preserves. Look for oak trees and check at the base.

Because this is Chicago we’re talking about, we had to ask: How would this new species fare on a slice of deep-dish pizza?

So-so, Leacock said: “It’s not the best use of it.” He recommends a nice omelet instead.

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© Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum
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Animals
After Years of Searching, Scientists Finally Found This Coconut-Cracking Giant Rat
© Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum
© Velizar Simeonovski, The Field Museum

Tyrone Lavery has spent years on the lookout for a giant rat. Lavery, a mammalogist who works at Chicago's Field Museum, first heard of a tree-dwelling rat that locals on Vangunu Island called “vika” on his first trip to the islands as a postdoctoral researcher in 2010. Now, he's finally found it.

Tyrone reports the existence of a new (to science) species they've named Uromys vika in a study just published in the Journal of Mammalogy. It's the first new rodent found in the Solomon Islands in 80 years—"and it's not like people haven't been trying," as Lavery says in a press statement from The Field Museum. "It was just so hard to find."

The Solomon Islands, located just east of Papua New Guinea, are biologically isolated by the Pacific Ocean, and half the mammals native to the islands are found nowhere else. The unique nature of their ecosystem makes the Solomon Islands—much like the Galapagos—fertile ground for scientists.

Though researchers working in the Solomon Islands have suspected the existence of the vika for two decades, the rat found by Lavery and his colleagues John Vendi and Hikuna Judge is the first specimen recorded by scientists. They spotted it scurrying out of a felled tree, and judging by the shape of its skull, could tell that it wasn't like other species of rats native to the area. Before its discovery, Lavery had spent so long looking for the elusive rat that he was beginning to think that maybe the children's rhymes and folk songs referencing vika were just referring to regular black rats.

But his first instinct was correct. U. vika is more than four times the size of a regular rat, measuring about 18 inches long. It lives in trees, and its teeth are strong enough to crack into coconuts, chewing circular holes in the shells to reach the meat inside.

Lavery confirmed that the massive rat he found was a unique, new species by checking its DNA against the DNA of other regional rat species, and by confirming with Vangunu Island locals that the rat he captured was indeed the one they called vika. "Vika's ancestors probably rafted to the island on vegetation, and once they got there, they evolved into this wonderfully new species, nothing like what they came from on the mainland," the mammalogist explained.

The species will be designated as critically endangered, because commercial logging poses a huge threat to its rainforest habitat. It was hard enough to find just one of the rats, and there's no telling when (or if) scientists will see the vika again.

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Deb Wright
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Animals
The ‘Yoda Bat’ Gets an Even Cuter Name
Deb Wright
Deb Wright

The fruit bat formerly known as Yoda has found its forever name. Scientists christened the happy tube-nosed fruit bat in the Records of the Australian Museum.

The genus Nyctimene comprises 18 species, all of which live in Oceania and southeast Asia. They’ve got bright fur and faces, and noticeable spots on their wings. They will do just about anything for a mushy piece of fruit.

The family tree is no stranger to memorable common names, with cousins like N. draconilla, the dragon tube-nosed bat, and N. masalai, the demonic tube-nosed bat.

But wacky names aside, it would be hard to spot the dragon or the demon amid a lineup of other Nyctimene species.

“Bat species often look similar to each other,” biologist and co-author Nancy Irwin of York University said in a statement, “but differ significantly in behavior, feeding, and history.”

The newest member of the family showed its smiling little face during a field survey of Papua New Guinea in the late 1990s. Surveyors brought the bat to Irwin, who suspected it was a separate species. For its wrinkly ears and sage but goofy smile, she nicknamed the bat Yoda.

To confirm that they did, in fact, have a new species on their hands, Irwin and her colleagues combed through the scientific literature and museum collections. They examined nearly 3000 bat specimens from 18 museums.

A happy tube-nosed fruit bat with her baby and a postage stamp featuring an illustration of an unknown tube-nosed fruit bat.
Happy tube-nosed fruit bat (L) and a postage stamp (R) showing an unknown Nyctimene species, because they all look the same.
(L) Nancy Irwin; (R) Illustration by Julie Himes.

Many years and many, many research hours later, Irwin and her colleagues can confidently say the Yoda bat is a species unto itself. But they won’t call it Yoda anymore—since, as Irwin points out, most local Papuans have never seen the Star Wars movies, and the word "Yoda" means nothing to them.

She went with Hamamas (a local word for happy) instead. Its full name is the Hamamas tube-nosed fruit bat, Nyctimene wrightae sp. nov. (new species). The species name was chosen in honor of conservationist and scientist Deb Wright, who spent two decades exploring and protecting Papua New Guinea wildlife.

“Until a species is recognized and has a name,” Irwin says, “it becomes difficult to recognize the riches of biodiversity and devise management. Fruit bats are crucial to rainforest health, pollinating and dispersing many tree species, therefore it is essential we know what is there and how we can protect it, for our own benefit.”

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