Lacrymaria Classification Essay

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I frequently receive e-mails from frantic biology students who have been asked to discover the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species of a certain mushroom. Here, with the student's typo included, is the most entertaining example I've received so far:

Aside from recommending that the student might want to find a new professor, I replied that the taxonomical hierarchy for Armillaria ostoyae is:

. . . in the traditional, and now probably outdated, system. Armillaria has been reconceived within the past few years, resulting in the elimination of what the student called "Armillariella," and placing the genus in the Marasmiaceae rather than the Tricholomataceae; also, there is debate about whether or not the kingdom and phylum distinctions should be made at some other level in the hierarchy.

But uncertainty is not what professors want on homework assignments. The problem is that there is no "correct" answer to the professor's question. Or, better said, the answer to the question changes constantly, and has been changing ever since Linnaeus started using Latin names to arrange organisms.

Though it is a fact usually unobserved in introductory biology classes, taxonomy does not represent organisms. Rather, taxonomy represents how we perceive and organize organisms. This is a very important difference. It is the difference, for example, between what happened at the scene of the crime, and what the witness saw happen at the scene of the crime--and anyone who has ever watched a courtroom drama knows how different these two things can be.

In my field (I am an English teacher), the rules of grammar and punctuation are seen by most teachers as unchanging and universal. Students are "wrong" if they omit the apostrophe from don't, or write "Everyday someone gets their lunch." Yet there was a time--not that long ago, from a historical perspective--when dont was perfectly correct, and the time is coming (or is already here) when this use of everyday and their is correct. People of my mother's generation physically cringe when they hear "their" used like this. People of my generation notice a problem, but use it anyway as a substitute for the sexist "his." My students don't even notice. Within my lifetime, the language has changed, as a result of a change in our culture: we became more aware of sexism, and less comfortable using masculine pronouns as universal pronouns.

With grammar and punctuation, however, the rule makers usually lag far behind the general population. This is because the rule makers (the authors and publishers of dictionaries and grammar handbooks) are conservative by nature, and often see themselves as corrective agents, holding back the masses and saving them from their mistakes. But with taxonomy, things are reversed. It is the mycologists, in the case of mushrooms, who are constantly changing things, and the general population that lags behind. Thus, I must provide the biology student above with an answer I know to be incorrect, knowing that her professor is likely working from outdated information.

Once, mushroom taxonomy was an arrangement of mushrooms based on their physical appearance. This one had gills, so it belonged in a group with other gilled mushrooms, while another mushroom, this one with pores, belonged in a different group. For well over a hundred years, advances in mushroom taxonomy simply represented more careful attention to the physical features of the mushrooms--and, importantly, the fact that more and more mushrooms from around the world were being sent to scientists in northern Europe. These scientists began to discover that closer examination revealed other groupings. Some of the gilled mushrooms had white spore prints, for example, and gills that were attached to the stem. New families and genera were named; species were placed in the hierarchy accordingly.

Then, roughly a hundred years ago, scientists began looking at mushrooms with microscopes. Some mycologists had been doing so earlier, but the hegemony of microscope mycology didn't take hold until the 20th century. As a result, new groupings emerged. These mushrooms, for example, had ornamented spores, indicating that they formed a group separate from other mushrooms that looked more or less the same to the naked eye, but had smooth spores. As microscopes got better and better, more taxonomical changes were made.

It is important to recall that the mushrooms themselves did not change during this brief history; what changed was the way we examined them. New technologies and methods of analysis--like studies of chemical composition, mating studies, and (especially) DNA analysis--are hegemonic these days, and they are resulting in radical changes in mushroom taxonomy. Groups that we once thought were related, based on physical appearance or microscopic features, are turning out to be unrelated. But it is likely--I would say it is a certainty--that future mycologists will decide our contemporary taxonomic arrangements are inaccurate.

I offer these comments by way of introducing the table below, which represents how mycologists currently see taxonomical relationships between mushrooms. I have culled the information from Ainsworth & Bisby's 2008 Dictionary of the Fungi (see the notes below for a complete citation), and I have included only "mushroom" taxonomy--omitting the details on rusts, yeasts, lichens, molds, and so on. The editors of the Dictionary, of course, compiled information from peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals; it should come as no surprise that editing such a compilation involves attempting to "standardize" things that have not yet become standards, resolving taxonomical conflicts that are often hotly debated, and so on. Yet Ainsworth & Bisby's Dictionary has become more or less the definitive standard for mushroom taxonomy; for better or worse, the biology student must consult this source to get the "best" current answer to a taxonomy question.

The Taxonomic Hierarchy of Kingdom Fungi

. . . based on Ainsworth & Bisby's 2008 Dictionary of the Fungi (10th. edition)



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