Featured News | Maine | Newts from the field | Science

Newts from the field: Squirreled Away for Winter

Our Stewardship Director and resident naturalist, Shelby Perry, just came back from a trip to the Howland Research Forest, a 550-acre living laboratory in central Maine that harbors a unique old-growth forest. Protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust in 2007, Howland allows scientists to conduct long-term studies on the function of mature forests, including how they can help reduce the impacts of human-caused climate change through carbon storage.

One of many mushrooms found drying in a tree at Howland Research Forest in November of 2018.

The first time I saw it I thought a person had done it.  The second time I saw it I thought there might be more to the story.  By the time I saw it a third time I was sure this was the work of an animal.  It would have been too much of a coincidence to have been anything else.  But who?

There is a good chance you have seen it, too:  high up in a tree, tucked in the crook of a branch or gently balanced on a limb, a mushroom sits improbably far from where it grew on the ground.  Most often I find them upside down, as if something or someone plucked it from the ground and secreted it up a tree.  Like a hastily discarded umbrella, the mushroom balanced precariously on its cap, its stipe sticking straight up into the air.

Squirrel claw marks in a mushroom found in late August of 2018 in central Vermont.

By now I’ve solved the mystery of course, and now I know when I see a moss-carpeted forest floor brimming with fruiting fungi, that looking up will usually yield more.  On a memorable visit to the Howland Research Forest this November, my colleagues and I discovered dozens and dozens of mushrooms tucked into the trees.  I pointed one out excitedly as soon as I saw it.  John Lee, a research scientist at the forest and our tour guide for the day, was unimpressed.  “They seem to take a few bites and then just drop them wherever” he said.  “No,” I said, “they aren’t forgotten.  They’re drying.”

Just like those little bags of dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms you can buy at the market, woodland creatures dry mushrooms before they tuck them away to save for a mid-winter snack.  And not just any woodland creature, but the craftiest creature of them all: squirrels, particularly red squirrels.

Two mushrooms drying in the same tree at Howland.

Red squirrels eat mushrooms year round, but late in the fall they start to stockpile them for use over the winter.  Sure they get a little chewy, but dried mushrooms keep well and they contain many valuable vitamins and minerals that are scarce during the winter months.  Red squirrels store their dried mushrooms and other foods in networks of shallow tunnels that they dig, usually near the most productive food sources in their territory.  After a few seasons of use, the ground surface above these storage tunnels is littered with the discarded inedible portions of their winter food supply.  These refuse piles, or midden heaps, are typically the scales and cores of pine cones, but since red squirrels are omnivorous, they sometimes contain bits of other foods like small animal bones, bits of acorns, and even dried mushrooms.

So the next time you head to the grocery store to stock up on dried food, think of your forest neighbors – they might just be doing the same thing in your backyard.

Bon appétit!

Shelby

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Marisa Riggi says:

    So interesting! I always wondered what was up with that.

  2. Holly Hughes says:

    Thanks for posting this Shelby. It was nice to see you and Jon at the site. It’s a snowy wilderness out there now, lots of great ‘stories’ in the snow. We look forward to your next visit.

    • Shelby Perry says:

      It was wonderful to meet you too Holly! I’m so glad to be a part of the story of Howland Forest, the work you guys do there is so fascinating! I can’t wait to visit again as well! Please feel free to share stories from the forest with us anytime!

  3. Rod Willey says:

    I can’t wait to start looking up more often when I walk in the Woods!

  4. Hannah Phillips says:

    What a great story! Would have loved to witness the laughter and perplexion as your eyes revealed a forest full of perched mushrooms.

  5. NWT Fan says:

    So you are saying its safe to eat mushrooms hanging in trees 🙂 So noted!

    Great post!

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