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Student's Fungi Research Documents Over 400 Sightings at Wolter Woods and Prairies

By Stacey Ortman

DUBUQUE, Iowa - A student's research project on a niche topic has led to the discovery of around 60 species of fungi - from the Wrinkled Peach to Dead Man Fingers - and over 400 sightings at the University of Dubuque's Wolter Woods and Prairies Environmental Stewardship and Retreat Center.

"We're seeing pink and red and orange and yellow. It's crazy how many different varieties of fungi there are," said Natalie Winger, a senior environmental science major from Asbury, Iowa.

As a Joseph and Linda Chlapaty Summer Research Fellowship participant, Winger documented fungi at Wolter Woods and Prairies in summer 2022. Her research project, titled "Biodiversity and Ecological Assessment of Fruiting Fungi in Dubuque County, Iowa," will create a baseline biodiversity analysis of the fruiting fungi species at the property.

Winger teamed up with Michele Zuercher, MS, assistant professor of biology, who served as her advisor.

"The diversity of fungi is so great. Once you begin exploring, the world just opens up," Zuercher said.

A fascination with fungi grew for Winger after watching the documentary Fantastic Fungi.

"They're not like plants and they're not like animals. They get so commonly mistaken and misidentified. There's not a ton known on macrofungi and how they interact with the environment, especially here in Iowa," Winger said.

The self-described amateur mycologist had an assumption of what types of fungi she would find at Wolter Woods and Prairies thanks to years of mushroom photographs taken by Mari Wolter, who had owned the property with her husband, Gary. But Winger said there was more than she imagined.

"I'll be in a 10-foot area and it's like I don't leave that area for 45 minutes because there are so many mushrooms," Winger said, adding. "You'll be staring at a log that is decaying for like an hour and think, 'This log is awesome.'"

As part of her data collection, Winger visited 14 forest management areas at Wolter Woods and Prairies. She conducted environmental assessments with various tools including a box-like tool to analyze a small area around the fungi to measure and document things like vegetation. Winger also took soil samples, photographed mushrooms, and used apps like iNaturalist to help identify fungi.

Of all the fungi she found over the summer, Winger said her favorite was the Wrinkled Peach.

"They're so cute. They're pink and they sometimes have this guttation coming off it which is water that it lets out and it will be pink, and so it's very cool for a photo," Winger said.

For Zuercher, who shares Winger's fascination with fungi, it has been exciting to see the different types of fungi found at Wolter Woods and Prairies - especially since she said fungi are often ignored.

"Fungi are paramount to survival of not just our species but to ecology as a whole because they break down material and release those nutrients to the forests or to the preserves. They're very instrumental in the recycling of nutrients," Zuercher said.

Winger's research will not only establish a baseline of biodiversity but it will also help to see if there are any particular components in an area that facilitate mushroom growth.

"I'm very happy with how far I've come with this project, because I didn't really imagine myself doing a research project at UD. After COVID, honestly, I was ready to be done. And then these opportunities just kept coming up and they were just really rare and exciting," Winger said.

Those opportunities have continued beyond the summer research fellowship. Winger's research into fungi will expand to areas in Dubuque County beyond Wolter Woods and Prairies via an independent research class with Zuercher and Adam Hoffman, PhD, professor of environmental chemistry. She will also look at soil samples in an environmental chemistry class as well as learn about remote sensing to analyze maps of Wolter Woods and Prairies through a remote sensing class.

"It's taking a Joseph and Linda Chlapaty Summer Research Fellowship project and applying that to senior classes," Zuercher said, adding. "It's a wonderful synergy with a lot of different classes from this one research project."