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Fungi: Description and Identification

Fungi as Art

Leocarpus Fragilis, also called ‘Insect-Egg Slime Mold’. Photo by Alison Pollack

Mycena adonis, also called the "scarlet bonnet". Photo taken by Steve Axford

Comb Tooth fungus (Hericium coralloides); photograph by Alison Pollack

Sky blue mushroom (Entoloma Hochstetteri), native to New Zealand. Photo by Steve Axford


Fungi are opportunistic organisms that resemble both plants and animals but are actually neither. Fungi:

  • Can exist as a single cell (like some yeasts) or as a multi-cell organism. 
  • Are heterotrophic: like animals, fungi live off other organic material. Most plants are autotrophic, producing their own food via photosynthesis.
  • Can reproduce by teleomorphic (sexual) or anamorphic (asexual) means, through fragmentation or by producing spores. The spores themselves can be sexual or asexual. 
    • Some fungi change from teleomorphs to anamorphs, adapting as environmental conditions around them change. 
    • Some fungi reproduce both sexually and asexually (“perfect fungi”). “Imperfect fungi” can only reproduce asexually.
  • Digest their food externally, by excreting enzymes onto organic matter, then ingesting the matter back into their cells. Animals ingest food first, then digest it internally. 
  • Can be saprophytic (feeding on dead or dying material).  Parasitic fungi obtain nutrition from a living host. Some, Armillaria mellea for example, transition from parasitic back to saprophytic, feeding on the organism it killed.

There are about 148 thousand identified species of fungi; a 2011 article suggests the total number is 5.1 million species. 

Related reading:

*= in LHL print collection

Journals: Identification & Classification

Books: Identification & Classification