Something is glowing in the forests of Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh
Stipes emitting bright luminous green light under complete darkness

Guwahati: The search was for the elusive Namdapha flying squirrel but they stumbled upon a mushroom that glows in the dark.

The bioluminescent fungi Roridomyces phyllostachydis was found in Kamala Valley Beat of Namdapha National Park (NNP), which is the easternmost national park, located in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh. This is also the first confirmed record of bioluminescent fungi in Arunachal Pradesh.

The Namdapha flying squirrel was first discovered in 1982 from a dead specimen collected by the researchers of the Zoological Survey of India at Namdapha National Park. Surveys have been carried out to trace the ‘lost species’ but without success.

The researchers who were associated with the spotting of the bioluminescent fungi – Arijit Dutta, Sourav Gupta, Dr. Jayanta Kumar Roy, and Dr. Firoz Ahmed – are from Aaranyak.

Mushrooms are macroscopic fruiting bodies of certain fungi. On the other hand, a fungus is any member of the kingdom of fungi that mainly includes yeasts, moulds, and mushrooms. Mushrooms develop over the ground while fungi can grow below the ground. Besides, all mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi produce mushrooms.

“The discovery of the mushroom was completely opportunistic as one evening in the month of April, we (me and Sourav along with our field assistants) were searching the tree canopies for the ‘Namdapha Flying Squirrel’ and after walking a distance from the field camp I along with one of the assistants sat down to rest for a bit while Sourav decided to walk further and continue the survey. As I was resting, I could hear multiple calls of animals coming from different parts of the forest. Hence, to immerse myself I decided to switch off the headlamp and sit in the dark for a while, and then something glowing caught my eye. On close inspection, I found it to be a small glowing mass of mushrooms emerging from a broken piece of bamboo embedded in the soil and therefore I decided to inform Sourav,” Arijit Dutta recollecting the journey told EastMojo.

Habitat shot with fruiting bodies of Roridomyces

Arijit Dutta, who spotted the mushroom in Arunachal Pradesh, said the mushroom that they found in Namdapha national park shows “bioluminescence”, which means that the stipe of the mushroom glows in darkness due to a certain chemical reaction within the organism that is responsible for emitting green light. 

“Earlier this particular species was known only from Meghalaya but our observational record from Namdapha national park is the easternmost record of the species from the country and is approximately 493 km away from the previous location,” he said.

“As Arijit informed me about the bioluminescent mushroom we went to the same spot again to check as I did not encounter any such thing earlier on my previous surveys. Upon finding the mushroom, I was fascinated by its beauty and recorded details of the mushroom with a few close-up photographs. Later, I showed them to my supervisor, Dr. Jayanta Kumar Roy (Senior Researcher and Manager) who suggested that we will try to identify and write a short report on the observation. As per his suggestions, we contacted Dr. Samantha C. Karunarathna (Professor at Qujing Normal University), one of the authors who had recently discovered the species of Roridomyces phyllostachydis from Meghalaya. After going through our photographs and descriptions, he confirmed it to be the same species as the one that he found in the community forest of West Jaintia Hills District in Meghalaya,” Sourav said.

Bioluminescence is the biochemical reaction in living organisms where chemical energy from a complex compound such as luciferin is converted to light energy through oxidation under the action of luciferase which acts as a catalytic enzyme.

Bioluminescent fungi obtain their luminescence from the enzyme luciferase. The glow is emitted when luciferans are catalysed by the enzyme luciferase, in the presence of oxygen. During the chemical reaction, several unstable intermediate products are released as excess energy, which makes them visible as light.

Roridomyces phyllostachydis is unique in its bioluminescent nature as compared to the 12 members in the genus as it has an intense luminescent stipe (stalk) emitting greenish light but the beige-coloured pileus (cap) with a brownish centre is not bioluminescent.

On the difficulty in sighting Namdapha flying squirrel, Firoz Ahmed, an eminent scientist working with Aaranyak, said, “We have seen a lot of flying squirrels in Namdapha, but we were not able to confirm the identity of Namdapha flying squirrel as it is closely related to the red giant flying squirrel. The squirrels usually visit at night and are difficult to identify.”

“We suspect the individuals of Namdapha flying squirrels are much fewer in number than the red giant and is a very rare species. Locating a small arboreal mammal in the night in a high evergreen canopy in Namdapha is a real challenge. In-depth investigations are needed to confirm its identity in Namdapha,” he said.

The current observation was also part of a larger project funded by Re-Wild and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust to rediscover the lost species in its last known habitat. Sourav Gupta, from Aaranyak, was working as a lead researcher in this project since 2020 under the guidance of Dr. Firoz Ahmed.

Researchers associated with the study say there have been several hypotheses regarding the evolutionary significance of bioluminescence in fungi facilitating reproduction by attracting insects for the dispersal of basidiospores or as a defensive mechanism to reduce predation, but no thorough study has been conducted on its ecological effects.

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“Since we only found a single group of fruiting bodies as opposed to the description from the original discovery, there might be some undergoing ecological interference that restricts the growth of multiple fruiting bodies. Hence, our observation further demands more research on its ecological aspect and its effect on associated flora and fauna,” the research team of Aaranyak said. 

Also said | Arunachal: Sighting of tiger helps detect illegal timber depots inside national park

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