Yet over time, they disappeared and evolved into the smaller versions we know and love today. But what if we found a way to bring them back?
Why did giant mushrooms go extinct? What would happen if they survived and grew on our planet? Would they be beneficial or harmful?
During the Devonian Period, about 420 to 350 million years ago, plants had not yet fully flourished and were merely a few feet tall. Still, massive mushrooms, or ‘prototaxites,’ were plentiful, due to the rich supply of bacteria found in the soil.
This special soil, known as cryptobiotic soil, harbored a crust of living organisms made up of fungi, mosses, green algae, bacteria and lichens. At this point in time, much of Earth’s land was covered in this soil, which made it the perfect breeding ground for fungi.
Believe it or not, ancient mushrooms didn’t have caps, which thankfully allowed generous sunlight for vascular plants to evolve. Prototaxites were pivotal in their progress, as they acted as symbiotic roots for plants.
The mushrooms’ feeding tubes, known as ‘hyphae,’ secreted organic acids to dissolve rocks and extract nutrients in a process known as ‘biological weathering.’ Plants, in turn, would absorb the sunlight through photosynthesis and transfer energy to the mushrooms.
They were essentially besties for life. If it weren’t for gigantic fungi, we may not have forests or oxygen rich environments to harbor complex lifeforms, such as ourselves. Today, vast networks of ‘mycelium’ allow trees to transfer essential nutrients to one another.
It’s like a fully organic form of the internet, minus all the spam and memes. In the mushroom network, things go viral in a totally different way. Fungi has been used to cure deadly viruses and comprises the basis of lifesaving antibiotics, such as penicillin.
They’ve also been found to digest hydrocarbons in petroleum and polyurethane plastics, and absorb heavy metals like mercury. Scientists have even discovered a species of fungi in Chernobyl that feeds on radiation, which converts it into chemical energy in a process called ‘radiosynthesis.’
In a way, having mega mushrooms all over the planet could solve a lot of problems like pollution or cleaning up oil spills and radioactive areas. But what are the risks? Could giant mushrooms hurt our planet?
Although many forms of fungi are beneficial, out of 1.5 million species on Earth, at least 300 of them are poisonous to us. If we tried to introduce them back into our ecosystem, we would need to be very careful about their toxicity.
As the most widely distributed organisms on Earth, many of them remain a mystery to us. We would need a team of experts to manage their harvest around the world, just as forest managers regulate our tree harvesting.
Without proper care, these mighty mushrooms could gobble up all the vital nutrients for plant life to grow and become an invasive species. And since fungi also inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, humans would have a rampant rival for the air we breathe.
Giant mushrooms likely couldn’t survive in today’s world unless they were carefully contained, as there is already too much competition from plants. Scientists are still debating why prototaxites went extinct, but there are a couple of theories.
Either they didn’t grow fast enough to recover from animals eating them, or the abundance of vascular plants outcompeted them for nutrients. So maybe their hearty size actually proved their downfall. Nevertheless, if we found a way to grow these giants again, we could use mushrooms in many interesting ways.
How about, sun reflectors, sources of shade, culinary delicacies, medicine, garbage absorbers, transcendental healing, or at the very least, trampolines to bounce around on! Okay, that’s maybe not the safest idea, but it would really put the fun in fungi!
In all honesty, we have a lot to thank our ginormous fungi friends for. They fostered the forests, which gave us oxygen rich environments, allowing complex animals like humans to evolve.
Though presumably we won’t have giant mushrooms similar to the Devonian period any time soon, it’s interesting to wonder if humans could have survived back then.
- “Evidence for huge mountains that fed early life discovered”. 2020. Sciencedaily.
- “Killer trees choked ocean life”. Flanagan, Ruth. 2020. New Scientist.
- “Fungi: Hazards And Health Applications”. 2020. medicalnewstoday.com.