Patagonian Birds Hunt for Truffles, Too

by johnsmith

New research demonstrates that two common, widespread, and endemic Patagonian bird species — the chucao tapaculo (Scelorchilus rubecula) and the black-throated huet-huet (Pteroptochos tarnii) — regularly consume fruiting bodies (truffles) of mycorrhizal fungi and disperse viable spores via mycophagy.

Patagonian birds disperse viable spores of mycorrhizal fungi. Image credit: Caiafa et al., doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.10.024.

Patagonian birds disperse viable spores of mycorrhizal fungi. Image credit: Caiafa et al., doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.10.024.

The term ‘truffle’ includes hundreds of species of underground fungi, only a few of which are the truffles people associate with high-end cuisine.

While non-culinary truffles may not appeal to human foodies, each has evolved to attract different animals that can assist in its spread.

The spreading of truffle spores is an important part of a healthy forest ecosystem as many tree species have a symbiotic relationship with truffles, which colonize the roots of the trees.

“Truffles are essentially mushrooms that grow underground,” said Dr. Matthew Smith, a researcher in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

“Unlike aboveground mushrooms, which release their spores into the air, truffles depend on animals consuming them to spread their spores.”

According to Dr. Smith and colleagues, chucao tapaculos and black-throated huet-huets not only eat truffles but appear to search them out specifically.

In the past, these birds were known to eat invertebrates, seeds and fruits, but their consumption of fungi was not previously documented.

“Previously, it was assumed that only mammals consumed and dispersed truffle spores, so our study is the first to document birds doing this as well,” added Dr. Marcos Caiafa, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology at the University of California Riverside.

In their research, the authors collected the droppings of chucao tapaculos and black-throated huet-huets and tested them for truffle DNA.

They found truffle DNA in 42% of chucao tupaculo and 38% of huet-huet feces.

Using a fluorescent microscopy, they confirmed that the spores in the feces were viable, suggesting that the birds are spreading truffles to new areas.

“DNA-based diet analysis is exciting because it provides new insights into interactions between organisms that would otherwise be difficult to directly observe,” said Dr. Michelle Jusino, a biologist at the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station’s Center for Forest Mycology Research.

“And, because sampling feces does not negatively impact the target species, I think these methods are invaluable for studying and protecting both common and rare species in the future.”

The scientists also think that some truffles in Patagonia may have evolved to attract birds.

“Some of truffles that the birds eat are brightly colored and resemble local berries,” Dr. Smith said.

“Our future research may look to see if there is an evolutionary adaptation there — that the truffles have evolved to look more like the berries that the birds also eat.”

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.


Marcos V. Caiafa et al. Discovering the role of Patagonian birds in the dispersal of truffles and other mycorrhizal fungi. Current Biology, published online October 28, 2021; doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.10.024

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