Turkey tail fungi: Nature’s recycling enthusiasts

Turkey tail fungi growing on a log in the Morgan Arboretum

Turkey tail fungi growing on a log in the Morgan Arboretum

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).

Turkey tail fungi with soil algae on top in the Morgan Arboretum.

Turkey tail fungi with soil algae on top in the Morgan Arboretum.

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).

These three photos clearly demonstrate the range of morphological features that were found in Turkey Tail mushrooms at the Morgan Arboretum.

These three photos clearly demonstrate the range of morphological features that were found in Turkey Tail mushrooms at the Morgan Arboretum.

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.).

A multicolour gill polypore, found at the Morgan Arboretum. While the top of cap looks similar to turkey tail fungi, its underside actually has maze-like gills.

A multicolour gill polypore, found at the Morgan Arboretum. While the top of cap looks similar to turkey tail fungi, its underside actually has maze-like gills.

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).

Our research

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.

A map of the Morgan Arboretum showing the location of different forest types.

A map of the Morgan Arboretum showing the location of different forest types.

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.

A useful identification chart for turkey tails (Source: the Distracted Naturalist, 2013)

A useful identification chart for turkey tails (Source: the Distracted Naturalist, 2013)

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.


About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

26 comments on “Turkey tail fungi: Nature’s recycling enthusiasts

  1. Loved the video! Very informative and interesting!

  2. Stunning pictures! I learned so much about Turkey tail fungi! However, I have a question: how big are they generally?

    • Thank you for commenting Annalisa! According to our data about 80% of all the mushrooms we saw were under 5cm large. Although we did see a few as large as 10cm! Follow us on twitter @turkeytails to see our results that will be out soon!

  3. Very interesting informations, I aquired lots of knowledge from your blog !

  4. Great article! I used to see these everywhere when I was a kid. Nice to read up about them.

  5. I’d love to find out more about the ancient uses . . . interesting implications for modern medicine. Thanks for the good read (and loved the video)!

    • Thanks for the comment! We also were amazed when we found how how beneficial this fungi could be. A good read on ancient uses is a book called Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies for Modern Ailments by Georges M. Halpern, Roy Andrew Miller. We hope it helps!

  6. What a great read! I’m particularly interested in the the use of Turkey Tails for breaking down the pesky industrial dyes that are infiltrating our waters… Keep up the good research!

    • Thank you, we appreciate taking time to read our research! Our findings will be out in a few days. About those industrial dyes, Borchert et al. (referenced in our post) clearly explained the specific process on how T. versicolor can break down these pollutants if that is what you are looking for. This is still being researched but hopefully one day we can use this fungi to clean up our water!

    • Tess, where can I find out more about this work?

  7. This is great! have you seen paul stamets ted talk? http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world?language=en
    Relevant and exciting

  8. Why does the Turkey Tail always get invited to all the parties? … Because he’s a fun guy (fungi)!

  9. I’m surprised that this is actually real thing. This is super cool.

  10. It’s very interesting to read up on something and get informed on a subject I would otherwise know nothing about. I too am curious to find out about the ancient uses of these fungi. Keep us posted!

  11. Turkey tail tea has traditionally been used as a cancer treatment in Japan. In China, it has been used for everything from clearing phlegm to treating hepatitis C to curing pulmonary infections, dating back to before the Ming Dynasty. Modern research has told us that main medicinal compound, Polysaccharide-K is an immune booster, helping explaining some of these disparate uses! (a good resource is the book “Health Benefits of Medicinal Mushrooms” by Mark Stengler!)

  12. I’m curious: while you say turkey tails are found on every continent except for Antarctica, surely they’re not prevalent in the extreme latitudinal ranges of North America, Asia, etc.. How durable of a fungus is it, and what temperatures/ climates does it stop growing in?

    • They are likely not found in extreme latitudes due to the fact that there is not many trees in those ranges. They are found in the boreal forests or Taiga forests which are at a latitude of 50-60 degrees north. These fungi are very durable they grow until December in the St. Lawrence Lowlands which is when the temperatures are below freezing point all day long. Thank you for the comment! We hope this helped.

  13. Interesting area of research! Regarding the idea of geographical differences in morphology, is there a suggested evolutionary purpose for the colourful concentric ring pattern which seems to be a common theme?

    • We apologize for the late reply! Unfortunately we are not aware of a reason behind the colours of Turkey Tails… It would be a very interesting approach to studying these wonderful mushrooms!

  14. Very interesting synopsis of your research methods (loved the video!). I’ll be interested to see your results! Are turkey tails perennial or annual in there sporophore growth? Do they have multiple growing times per year? Some of the differences you are seeing in shape etc could be due to the age of individual sporophores, did you have any way of checking that?
    Very cool project, fungi are such an interesting group that we really know so little about!

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