Turkey tail fungi are found in mixed-wood forests on every continent except Antarctica. Known as Trametes versicolor to natural scientists, these fungi are admired for the colourful concentric ring pattern on the cap (or ‘pileus’) of their fruiting bodies. These fungi are in the order Polyporales meaning they have multiple openings known as pores under the mushroom cap that release spores needed to reproduce (Kuo, 2005). They grow in shelf-like formations on logs and other dead wood and are found primarily in mixed hardwood forests (Ostry et al., 2011; Kuo, 2005).
Turkey tail fungi are characterized by multicolored banding on their fruiting bodies – the visible section protruding from logs – with colours usually ranging from light brown, dark brown, burgundy, orange and gray. They also appear green on occasion when soil algae becomes exposed on the mushroom cap (Zavada et al., 2001).
The texture of turkey tails is velvety, smooth and relatively flat. The pores located under the cap are abundant and small, and can be difficult to observe with the naked eye.
As one of the most abundant polypore fungi in the St. Lawrence Lowlands, turkey tails play a crucial role in forests by breaking down dead wood, recycling nutrients back into the soil and creating space for new growth (Kout 2009; Tuor et al, 1995). Turkey tails are a type of white rot fungi, meaning they have the specific substances need to break-down the main strengthening substance in wood, lignin. This lignin decomposition is what causes the dead wood turkey tails grow on to become soft, white, and stringy over time (Voda et al, 2003).
Identifying Turkey Tails
The presence of pores is actually the most helpful characteristic for naturalists trying to distinguish turkey tails from other similar looking fungi in the forest such as the multicolour gill polypore, Lenzites betulina and the “false turkey tail”, Stereum ostrea. Multicolour gill polypores have very large, maze-like gills on their underside, whereas the false turkey tails are smooth with no pores. However, both of their top-sides can be extremely similar to that of Turkey tails, although false turkey tails have a tougher surface. The tough outer layer keeps them from drying out or freezing so Turkey Tail mushrooms are durable and can usually be found up until December in the St. Lawrence Lowlands. (Ostry et al.,2011; Trametes versicolor, n.d.).
Turkey tails outside of the forest
On top of their considerable ecological and aesthetic value, turkey tail mushrooms also have many exciting industrial and medicinal applications. As a result of this mechanism, the fungus is in use as a more environmentally friendly method of bleaching pulp to make paper (Taveres et al, 2007). Researchers have also found that the turkey tails are capable of decomposing some man-made substances, and studies are being conducted using the fungi for the decomposition of industrial dyes used for textiles, and a variety of wastewater treatments (Borchet & Libra, 2001).
Turkey tails are edible, but not palatable! However, they have been popular throughout history as folk medicine in societies from ancient China to pre-colonial North America. The fruiting body of turkey tail contains a type of complex carbohydrate that modern western medicine has recently taken interest in as a potential early treatment for some types of cancer that can inhibit cancerous cell growth, with promising clinical trials currently being conducted (De Silva et al, 2012).
Despite their abundance in forests and the considerable research on the use of turkey tails for industry and medicine, there was surprisingly little research on their specific ecology . We knew that the species was more common in mixed hardwood forests, but they do still appear in coniferous and other forest types. When we first visited the Morgan Arboretum, we noticed there was a wide range of morphological characteristics in the turkey tails we came across, and there were some areas where they were extremely common. While we now have more practice identifying fungi and know that some of these were surely false turkey tails, real turkey tails do display very varied traits as you can see in some of our pictures above. We were curious if there was any relationship between the morphology or abundance of turkey tails and different habitats.
With different forest types within walking distance to each other, the 245 hectare Morgan Arboretum was an ideal place to conduct this research, letting us make observations in in hemlock, coniferous and mixed deciduous forest (Morgan Arboretum, 2014).
Video 1: Site selection and data collection for our research!
In order to be able to collect enough data, we intentionally selected areas where there was a distinct presence of dead trees. However, to ensure an unbiased approach to our research, we did not especially look for fungi before defining our specific area of study. We used the randomly selected our data collection sites by tossing a stick and walking 30 steps from the direction it landed in. From here, we defined an area which was 4 meters wide and 15 meters long.
We then started checking the area for turkey tails, and recording our findings. First, we counted the number of turkey tail specimens in four equal size ranges from under 2.5cm to over 10. We also noted the specific primary and secondary colour pattern on the turkey tail caps and counted how many there were of each. Finally, we tallied the overall number of turkey tails in the study area before moving on to a new one, with each ‘shelf’ being counted as one.
While looking for turkey tails, we had to be aware that there are a variety of species that look quite similar, as we mentioned above. We used an identification chart and looked for signature characteristics such as colour, texture, and underside structure.
We are excited to analyze our data that we have collected over the last few weeks and determine if there may be a pattern to all the varied and beautiful turkey tails we have seen!
Borchert, M., & Libra, J. A. (2001). Decolorization of reactive dyes by the white rot fungus Trametes versicolor in sequencing batch reactors. Biotechnology and bioengineering, 75(3), 313-321.
De Silva, D. D., Rapior, S., Fons, F., Bahkali, A. H., & Hyde, K. D. (2012). Medicinal mushrooms in supportive cancer therapies: an approach to anti-cancer effects and putative mechanisms of action. Fungal Diversity, 55(1), 1-35.
The Distracted Naturalist. “Turkey Tails”. thedistractednaturalist.com. Web: Nov. 27, 2013.
Kuo, M. (2005, March). Trametes versicolor: The turkey tail. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/trametes_versicolor.html
Morgan Arboretum. morganarboretum.org.Web: Thurs. October 30, 2014
Ostry, M. E., O’Brien, J. G., & Anderson, N. A. (2011). Field guide to common macrofungi in eastern forests and their ecosystem functions: General Technical Report NRS-7. United States Department of Agriculture: Government Printing Office.
Zavada, M.S., Dimichele, L., & Toth, C.R. (2009) The demi-lichenization of Trametes versicolor Pilat (Polyporaceae): The transfer of fixed CO2 from epiphytic algae to T. Versicolor. Northeastern Naturalist 11:1, 33-40.
Trametes Versicolor. (n.d.). Sierra club Pro. Retrieved from http://www.sierrapotomac.org/W_Needham/TrametesVersicolor_111223.htm
Xavier, R. B., Maria, A., Mora Tavares, A. P., Ferreira, R., & Amado, F. (2007). Trametes versicolor growth and laccase induction with by-products of pulp and paper industry. Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, 10(3), 444-451.