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On Sunday 27th May over fifty Natural History groups got together to take part in The Big Nature Day event at the Natural History Museum in London.  The aim of the event was to celebrate the work of the OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) citizen science programme and focussed on showcasing the achievements of the OPAL programme in order to encourage more people to get involved.  It also marked the UN International Day of Biological Diversity.  More than five thousand members of the general public took part in the event (over 40% of the total visitors to the Museum on that day), where they were stimulated to take part in recording, monitoring, enjoying and protecting biodiversity and their local environment. 

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The British Mycological Society display was very well attended, children were drawn to the stand by the chance to take away a red and white spotted ‘fly agaric balloon’ and chewy mushroom sweets. We were also fortunate to have been sponsored by ‘G’s Fresh who supplied us with dried wild and porcini mushrooms that we could give away to adults. Children were fascinated to see the ‘gills’ of Agaricus bisporus viewed under child friendly stereo microscopes and learnt that gills were the specialised structures where fungal spores were made. We looked at spore prints on microscope slides using a compound microscope which showed that the spore print pattern was made up of thousands of tiny spores that had fallen from the gills. Lynne brought along some of her soil plates with mycelium from a woodland saprotroph that demonstrate what the main body of a filamentous fungus looks like. These were also used as a prop to explain the answer to the ‘Fungus Decoder Quiz’ designed by Kay. Here, the fruit bodies of the six fungi listed in the BMS recording programme ‘have you seen this fungus?’ plus a few extra fruit bodies (whose common names resembled their fruit body appearance), had to be matched with their common name to reveal a letter code. The quiz sheet presented the fruit bodies in a particular order to spell out the word ‘Mycelium’ – the main body of a filamentous fungus. To further encourage the general public to take part in the BMS recording programme ‘have you seen this fungus?’ we ran the very visual activity ‘How the mushroom got its spots’.

The life cycle of the fly agaric was explained in varying detail depending on the age of the participant and the importance of the fly agaric as an ectomycorrhizal fungus on birch and pine was emphasised. Children learnt how this mushroom gets its spots – the secret being the disintegration of the ‘universal veil’ as the mushroom cap expands. This was beautifully illustrated by Jenna and Ali, using a red balloon, tissue paper, water and lots of puff! The team worked well together on the day, sharing the work load and distributing our many leaflets and chewy sweets.

It was important for BMS to be part of this new event, allowing us to liaise with our fellow learned societies and other enthusiastic amateurs, sharing our expertise and experience of public outreach and engagement to further promote the achievements of OPAL and their citizen science programme. It is clear that technology is allowing the collection and sharing of biological data that will provide a platform for new biological insights in the future, a future in which the British Mycological Society should play a pivotal role.

Thanks to Naresh, Lynne, Stuart, Paul, Kay, Alan, Ali and Jenna for manning the stand on the day, Carol for preparing the FMC ‘have you seen this fungus?’ banner and leaflet, and Sophie and Norman in the BMS office for preparing the ‘Fantastic Fungus Facts’ leaflet and other materials for the event.

Ali Ashby June 2012