Fungi are the organisms that contribute to the decomposition of dead animals and plants. What we typically think of when we think of fungi are actually the charismatic fruiting bodies. The actual fungus, however, is “invisible” as it is buried underground or inside a decomposing tree trunk in the form of a mycelium. The mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus and consists of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. These fruiting bodies of so called polypore fungi were growing all the way around the trunk of a dead tree. Polypores are also called bracket fungi, and their woody fruiting bodies are called conks and they typically inhabit tree trunks or branches consuming the wood.
Tree conks are the the fruiting bodies of fungi growing inside tree. They are an ominous signs that the tree is decaying from the inside out. This harbinger of death can be quite pretty though. I came across this stunning conk on a paper birch at the heritage Wetlands park. With a brown gradient on the top, a crisp dark brown line along its waist and a white underside it almost looked like it had been painted with water colors. The decay process is typically slow and conks can grow quite large. The lifestyle of growing on dead or dying organisms called a saprotrophic lifestyle and, while it does not sounds very glamorous, is a important ecological role of many fungi. What dies has to be recycled and fungi and bacteria are key players making this possible.