Collecting Specimens in the Field

Learn how to properly collect mushroom specimens from the field and how to provide scientifically valuable documentation of those specimens.

1. Before You Head Out

Gather your Field Materials

Required Protocol

At a minimum, all you need to participate in the field component of this project is a collecting basket or tackle box and a camera.  The camera will allow you to take color photographs of the fungi you encounter, and the collection vessel will allow you to keep your collections separated and in good condition during your outing.

Camera Requirements

There are no specific requirements for cameras. You may use a good quality point-and-shoot or a full-size DSLR camera or to take your color photographs. But most newer cell phone cameras also take images with high enough resolution to be valuable for this project. Suitable cell phones include iPhone 5s/6/7/8/X or Galaxy S7/S8, etc. An advantage to cell phones -- besides the fact that they are always with you -- is the ability for images to automatically be tagged with the GPS coordinates of your collection (important scientific information). Some newer DSLR or point-and-shoot cameras also can record GPS metadata.

Collection Vessel Requirements

There are no specific requirements for collection vessels. The most typical collection vessels are baskets and/or tackle boxes. A tackle box has many individualized compartments, often with movable dividers, allowing specimens to be easily segregated. Many individuals who use a basket will put each collection into separate wax paper or paper (not plastic) bags to prevent them from being mixed. Whichever method you choose, the goal is to get individual collections back to your home base in good condition and without collections getting mixed together.

Optional Protocol

There are several other things you can consider bringing with you on field outings. Each of these have specific uses, and you may find benefits having them handy in the field. Filling out voucher data slips and/or maintaining a field notebook are not required but can significantly add to the value of your collections and ease of organization. Also consider which type of numbering system you plan to use for your collections. Other optional materials to bring into the field include:

  • Voucher data slips
    • Field slips with NAMP collection numbers
    • or personal numbered collection labels
  • Field Notebook
  • Knife and/or trowel (for digging mushrooms out of soil or wood)
  • Small ruler with metric markings (for scale if NAMP field slips are not used)

2. Photograph, Collect, and Document your Specimen

Required Protocol

In the Field

Take high quality pictures of the mushroom

The first step to documenting any specimen is to take good photographs of the mushroom where it is found. This is important because some features, like color or delicate tissue, may change or degrade. Photograph the specimen from the top, side and the gills or pores. For some genera it is good to cut a stipe vertically and photograph while fresh. Also stand back and photograph the habitat. 

Collect the mushroom 

You may have been taught to cut mushrooms off at the base when collecting edible species. While this prevents you from collecting dirt and debris, the base of the mushroom often contains critical features that needs to be saved for an accurate identification. With any mushroom you collect, dig down into the ground a little bit to ensure you are collecting as much of the base intact as possible. Many collectors will bring a small trowel to accomplish this or they may dig a knife into the ground a little bit around the mushroom to bring up the entire base. Another option is to simply dig underneath the mushroom with your finger if the ground is soft.

Store in individual bags or compartments

After you have your collection out of the ground (or off the wood), put each species into an individual collection space. You do not want to put many different species together into the bottom of a basket. There are a couple common options to avoid this that were touched on previously. The first is to put each collection into its own wax or paper paper bag (not plastic). Another option is to use a tackle box in order to help separate out the smaller species you encounter. A combination of these methods is the norm.

Tackle boxes with movable dividers are and easy way to keep your collections organized in the field. Use a new cell for each new collection.

Back at Home Base

Organize/edit your images

There are no required protocols for image editing or organization, other than ensuring the photos are uploaded to individual observational records online. It is also possible to take additional lab photographs of your specimens once you are back at base. These images usually include a ruler and a color chart as additional documentary elements. 

Create individual observations on the platform of your choice

Once your images are organized, create an observation and upload the images for each species to Mushroom Observer, iNaturalist, or MycoPortal. We encourage you to try out each platform and see which one you are most comfortable working with. Each has areas where they excel, and areas that could use some improvements. The primary metadata you need to include with each observation is the collection date, collection location, the species name, images, and any notes you took about the collection. Also be sure to select the Voucher specimen field for any observations for which you have saved a dried specimen. See Upload Your Observations.

Optional Protocols

In the Field

Start a voucher data slip or field notebook

It is best to start filling out a voucher data slip while you are in the field. This will allow you take some preliminary notes about the substrate the mushroom was growing from (ground, wood, etc.) and will allow you to note any trees that are in the area. Many mushrooms have an association with different trees, so the more you can document about the environment where the mushroom was found, the more useful the voucher collection will be. You may also choose to assign a collection number and to put the photograph numbers on the collection slip at this time. If you have a busy day with many mushrooms, this will help you to keep your collections and photographs in order later. A GPS location may also be good to include (if it is not automatically included as metadata on your images). A valuable option is to take a picture of the species with your voucher slip and collection number in order to help track the image-specimen associations later in the process.

Back at Home Base

Finish filling out your voucher data slip

Once you get your collections back to your final sorting location, it is time to finish writing your notes on the specimen, annotating your voucher slip, your field notebook and/or your on-line observation, if you have started it. If your workflow includes taking measurements, chemical tests and the like at Home Base, you may decide to upload your observations after completing your examination.

Remember that many of the most important features will be lost as the mushroom is dried, so the better you document these features now, the more useful the report will be in the future. Does the mushroom have a smell or taste?  Parts of the mushroom might show bruising or other color changes when the cap is peeled, the pores are pinched, or the cap or stipe is cut. Note these as well in your notes and photograph them while the reactions are fresh. Note the size of the cap and stem, any colors that are found on the mushroom, and any other interesting features that may be lost upon drying.

It is often useful to perform chemical tests on the species at this time as well. Many species have specific color change reactions to chemicals such as Potassium hydroxide (KOH), Ammonia (NH4), and/or Iron Salts. Documenting these chemical reactions will be useful for future scientists looking at your specimens. Be sure to take pictures of any chemical reactions you test for and include these photos with your report.

Spore prints are optional but beginners especially will find that spore print color is one of the first characters asked for in field guides. Place a piece of the mushroom cap with gills or pores facing down on a piece of paper or foil, and wait a few hours to overnight. A strip of aluminum foil is handy because you can see both light and dark spores and it can be folded, written on, and stored with the specimen. Take a pic of spore print and upload with other pics. Take a photo of the spore print and upload it with other photos.

In most cases, our voucher data slip will be sufficient to document the species. If you have a fairly good idea of the genus (and you have a little extra time) it would be useful to fill out one a taxon-specific data page that has been developed by experts. For example: Amanita

Take Photographs at Home

Another optional step is to take images at home of each individual collection, with ruler and color scale if available. Some collectors find it convenient to photograph with a cell phone or point-and-shoot in the field, and use a high-resolution DSLR camera with a macro lens at home. Include these photographs in your uploaded observation.

3. Dry Your Specimens

As you start making a significant number of collections you will quickly find that one of the most difficult tasks is organizing your collections for drying, tissue sampling for DNA extraction, and eventual send-off to a fungarium. This process takes a significant amount of time if it is going to be done in an orderly fashion. Many identifying characters are lost during the drying process, so you must maintain organization of your collections as you may not be able to identify them easily later.

Commercial Fruit Dryers

This 15 min. video compares two large fruit dryers commonly used by mushroomers. A small Nesco Gardenmaster with adjustable temperature ($70-$100) is a good choice for serious beginners.

Required Protocol

Drying Your Samples

The overall goal of drying mushrooms is preserve the specimen for long-term storage in a fungarium. This process should be started as soon as possible after harvest. Air drying with a commercial dehydratorwith a commercial dehydrator is the most common method. For large fleshy specimens, like some boletes or Amanitas, cut them into slices: remove the cap from the stem, and slice both at least once. 

Air Drying Mushrooms

Food dehydrators are perhaps the most accessible option for most people to dry their collections. The best models have fans that will allow air to circulate within the unit. This will help the mushrooms to dry out faster, which is very important for species that start to degrade quickly. The normal temperature is about 100 – 110 F (37 - 43 degrees C). Be sure to label your specimens on the rack while they are being dried. Using the large number cut from the bottom left of the NAMP Data Slip is helpful to keep your collection organized

We recommend NESCO Gardenmaster dehydrators. They are commonly used by mushroom collectors, have an adjustable thermostat, and feature removable racks. They also have a fan that circulates air throughout the unit as it is drying. You can get some models for around $100. There are cheaper options that work just as well ($30-$50 range), but at a minimum, look for a model with a circulating fan in conjunction with heat. It will usually take 24 to 48 hours to completely dry the mushrooms in a dehydrator, depending on ambient humidity, size, density and water content.

Oven drying is not recommended as it tends to cook the mushrooms.

Once the mushrooms are dry as a potato chip you can either place them with the field data slip in a paper specimen packet or in a plastic ziploc bag (readily and inexpensively available from craft stores). Some fungaria use both: a plastic ziploc bag inside a paper specimen packet. Once your project has a Dashboard on MycoMap, you can Download Specimen Packets from MycoMap. (Some collectors print labels from a Mushroom Observer Species List, which are handy to place inside zip lock bags.)

If you are not going to be able to send the specimens out soon after they are dried, put the sealed bag in the freezer for 5 days in order to kill any insect larvae that may be residing in the dried specimen. This process will be repeated once it gets to the fungarium, but it may be worth doing at your location soon after the mushroom is dried.

For specimens that will be sent for DNA sequencing, follow the Tissue Collection for Sequencing Protocol.

About North American Mycoflora Project

NAMP is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization expanding the continent-wide community of volunteer citizen scientists and professional mycologists who are documenting the distribution and biodiversity of North American mushrooms and fungi.

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