Borneo glow-in-the-dark mushrooms rare but do ‘exist outside the psychedelic world’

Scott Sutherland
October 5, 2012

Mount Kinabalu, in Borneo, is known to some as the world's epicentre for biodiversity, and Dutch and Malaysian scientists made some amazing discoveries on a recent trip there.

Flies with their eyes positioned on long stalks, sometimes longer than their bodies. Armoured centipedes whose segmented bodies look like tractor treads. Ghostly-green bioluminescent mushrooms. Weirdly thin jumping spiders whose large eyes and massive chelicerae — mouth parts used for grasping prey — make them look a bit like Popeye the Sailorman. Pitcher plants that rely on small animals using them as a toilet in order to get nutrients.

The expedition, organized by the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, made the journey to Mount Kinabalu specifically to investigate the evolutionary connections of the species there. Their goal is to determine whether these mountain-top species have only recently evolved from species elsewhere in the region, or if they are relicts of species that evolved long ago.

The expedition members were quite excited about some of the species they discovered.

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Luis Morgado wrote about what he called "the green stars of the forest" in his Naturalis blog: "Glowing mushrooms are rare but they do exist outside the psychedelic world. This phenomenon is known as bioluminescence and can only be seen in the complete darkness of the jungle night. During daytime one might pass by and even photograph them without knowing it, but only a nocturnal excursion reveals this incredible phenomenon that remains hidden in plain daylight."

The stalk-eyed flies were the subject of Astrid Kromhout's entry: "An intriguing lot, like their name. Their eyes are on stalks, sometimes even longer than their bodies. This seems very awkward. What could be the evolutionary advantage? Dr. Hans Feijen explains: "The longer the stalks of the male flies, the more attractive they are to the females." Size matters — but just a little differently. To impress the females, males position themselves with their stalks outstretched opposite eachother. Whoever has the largest, wins the female. In some species, the male can even obtain a whole harem as a reward. A typical case of sexual selection."

"Nepenthes lowii certainly is creative in its diet choice, though," wrote Rachel Schwallier. "It captures poop — yes, you read that right… poop. To accomplish this, it attracts and feeds small mammals with exudates produced by glands in the inner lid of the pitchers. As the tree shrew sits to feast on this plant-produced meal, its feces fall into the opening of the trap for a nitrogen rich snack for N. lowii — what an awesome strategy for nutrients!"

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"It has been a successful expedition," expedition leader Menno Schilthuizen of Naturalis said in a statement. "A lot of material has been collected and close collaborations have been established between the Malaysian and Dutch researchers. Now the next phase will start, namely DNA research into the relationships."