Zoology: truffle birds in Patagonia

Traditionally, truffles are fished with a fly, a pig or a dog, animals with an infallible smell that are used to unearth the precious mushrooms buried in the undergrowth. But in other skies, birds also seem attracted to these nuggets. This is what an American-Chilean team has just discovered, which describes in the review Current Biology how two Patagonian passerines also disperse the spores of various species through their droppings.

As often, the discovery was fortuitous. The team surveyed the temperate forests of southern Chile to carry out a census of truffle species – general name designating buried or semi-buried mushrooms, larger than that designating those strictly classified under the genus. Tuber, sources of culinary delights.

One of the expedition members even sees a bird eating a truffle right in front of him

“We noticed that birds continued to follow us and check the areas where we had disturbed the ground.says Matthew E. Smith (University of Florida) in a press release describing the discovery. We then found truffles whose pieces had been pecked. ” One of the members of the expedition even sees a bird eating a truffle right in front of him. Were the hosts of these woods usually truffivorous?


It was necessary to be clear about it. During three new field trips, in 2018 and 2019, droppings from two local species, the chucao tapaculos (Scelorchilus rubecula) and the hat-hat in gorge black (Pteroptochos tarnii), were collected. Their DNA content has been sequenced. Observation confirmed: the birds had ingested truffles of several species. Fluorescence microscopy analysis further indicated that these spores were viable, having resisted intestinal transit.

“Our results show that mushrooms are a common food of these two species of birds and that this symbiosis between animal and fungi is widespread and ecologically important in Patagonia”, write the researchers in Current Biology. Indeed, the truffles thus dispersed are associated in a symbiotic way with the trees of the nothofagaceae family which dominate in the forests of Patagonia: these deciduous trees provide sugar to the mushrooms in exchange for mineral elements that they provide them at the level of the roots.

Mushroom specialist at the National Museum of Natural History, Marc-André Selosse welcomes the discovery, but is “Not totally surprised” that birds are also interested in truffles. In New Zealand, he recalls, we had already observed the presence of fungal spores in the fossil droppings of the giant moa, a bird that became extinct after the arrival of the Maoris. The moa seemed particularly fond of mushrooms producing colorful berry-like balls.

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Zoology: truffle birds in Patagonia