How deeply have you thought about fungi?

Beyond slicing them up as a pizza topping or sauteed beside a steak, I’ve never given much thought to mushrooms. But after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’ll never look at one the same again.

In the book, he talks about the mysteriousness of fungi and how we really don’t know very much about them. What really got my attention though, is their role in life’s cycle on the planet or, more specifically, in death. From the book:

Without fungi to break things down, the earth would long ago have suffocated beneath a blanket of organic matter created by plants; the dead would pile up without end, the carbon cycle would cease to function, and living things would run out of things to eat.

We tend to train our attention and science on life and growth, but of course death and decomposition are no less important to nature’s operations, and the fungi are the undisputed rulers of this realm.

Below are some fascinating photos of this strange organism.

[Note: Most of these photos are licensed All Rights Reserved. Matador received special permission from the photographers in these cases. Please note the license type before reusing any of the following images.]

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1. Monterey mushroom Taken in Monterey, California. Photo: JonesGGallery (Creative Commons)

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2. Shaggy Ink-cap As the cap matures it deliquesces into an inky black fluid. This specimen was found by the side of a path in deciduous woodland. Photo: Steve Greaves (All Rights Reserved)

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3. Storm mushroom In late August 2008 Tallahassee, Florida was hit by Tropical Storm Fay. A week later in Indianhead Acres, the effects of the storm are still noticeable. Mushrooms grow wild. Photo: Andres Plata Stapper (All Rights Reserved)

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4. 3D mushrooms You will need your red/cyan 3D glasses to get the effect. Found this tiny cluster of mushrooms while out walking through the woods after dinner yesterday. Photo: ian5281 (All Rights Reserved)

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5. Firey mushroom It's hard to believe that a mushroom could be so bright. I almost needed sunglasses to photograph this one. Scarlet Waxy Cap is one of the common English names for this mushroom. Photo: Dean Gugler (All Rights Reserved)

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6. Parasol mushroom It is a very sought after and popular fungus in Europe, due in part to its large size, seasonal frequency and versatility in the kitchen. Photo: Claude@Munich (All Rights Reserved)

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7. Glowing mushroom The name of this species is Mycena chlorophos, they only grow out of decomposing wood. The luminesence is caused by oxidisation with the air. Photo: aardvaarkau (All Rights Reserved)

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8. Log mushroom Taken in Uvas Canyon. Photo: pendeho (All Rights Reserved)

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9. Orange mushroom Taken in Upper Michigan. Photo: blondieyooper (All Rights Reserved)

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10. Morel mushrooms Found on Memorial Day of 2006 near Bear Lake Michigan. Photo: Jim Stoner (All Rights Reserved)

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11. Lemon mushrooms I really like the location of these parasitic mushrooms. Right in a crevasse of a deciduous tree, nestled in next to the epiphytic moss. Photo: backpackphotography (Creative Commons)

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12. Turkey tail mushroom Mushrooms can apparently sprout up in a day or two if the right conditions exist. According to my mom, the naturalist, this one is called a Turkey Tail and is normally not seen in this round form but usually is layered on the edge of a log. Photo: BlueMarla (All Rights Reserved)

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13. Mini mushrooms The most picturesque little mushrooms in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Photo: jeua (Creative Commons)