Environment

FungiQuest: North America’s largest fungi-related citizen science project

Robert Courteau, the former chef behind FungiQuest, discusses his passion for mushrooms and the goal to map every species of fungi on the planet

Turkey tail mushrooms are one of the most commonly found species of mushrooms in North America, frequently spotted on dead hardwood logs. (Photo: Nick Shearman/Can Geo Photo Club)
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“I mean, mushrooms are everywhere,” Robert Courteau tells me with an easy smile and a small shrug. There’s a toadstool in his Zoom background, a mushroom on his T-shirt. “When I’m walking through [Ottawa’s] Central Park, I see mushrooms — I see them everywhere. I’m that weird guy who’s just standing on someone’s front lawn photographing mushrooms.”

Courteau is the 35-year-old former chef behind FungiQuest, the largest fungi bioblitz in North
America’s history. Between September and October 2022, some 34,538 people took to the woods,
parks, and their own backyards, on a quest to document as many mushrooms, slime moulds and lichen as possible. To do this, Courteau, through his organization Think Fungi, partnered with BioSMART, an Australian tech company aiming to map every species on the planet. BioSMART had expected about 50,000 observations, but “we basically broke the internet,” laughs Courteau. Observations poured in from across the continent, topping out at 148,214 sightings and 4,393 species. A handful of these are marked on this map.

What surprised Courteau the most, other than the sheer volume of observations, was how many species FungiQuest observed in that one-month period, especially given that many mushrooms are seasonal. North America has an estimated 11,000 types of fruiting bodies — that is, mushrooms you can physically see, as opposed to the network of mycelial fibres beneath the earth. “Almost half of all the species that are known to grow in North America were observed,” says Courteau. “And that’s pretty neat.”

Courteau hopes to get more young people into fungi and saw the quest as a great way to get people into the woods, down on the ground, peering underneath a mushroom’s delicate gills. “I see my role in the fungi universe as being someone to pull those people who aren’t into it, into it.”

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