Here’s a riddle: What lives in the rainforest under a tree, not in a pineapple under the sea? What’s absorbent and orange and porous as can be? It’s SpongeBob SquarePants—sort of.
The little yellow cartoon with the square brown bottoms loaned his name to a new mushroom, Spongiforma squarepantsii, discovered in 2010 in Borneo by researchers from San Francisco State University (SFSU) and profiled in the May 2011 Mycologia. Their reasoning for the naming: The mushroom strongly resembles a sea sponge and when viewed under a scanning microscope, “the spore-producing area of the fungus looks like a seafloor carpeted in tube sponges.” (Check it out in the images below.)
“It’s just like a sponge with these big hollow holes,” explains SFSU researcher Dennis Desjardin. “When it’s wet and moist and fresh, you can wring water out of it and it will spring back to its original size. Most mushrooms don’t do that.”
This variety is only the second species in the Spongiforma genus. (The other lives in Thailand and looks and smells different.) However, it is related to the more common porcini mushroom—minus the cap and stem. Because it lacks those protective traits, to prevent from getting dried out, it absorbs moisture from the air in tiny increments. Kind of like a sponge absorbs water.
In addition to being named after a cartoon character, S. squarepantsii as it’s more commonly referred, is part of an elite group of fungi. According to Desjardin, only five percent of the upwards of 3 million species in this kingdom have formal names. That’s because so many are still unknown to science.
And it’s one of the reasons S. squarepantsii isn’t Desjardin’s only recent fungal discovery. He and a University of Hawaii colleague found in Hawaii’s mountain forests five new white-spored mushrooms. “We think that all this diversity is necessary to make the forests work the way they’re supposed to work,” he says.
Though S. squarepantsii lacks some its namesake’s goofy enthusiasm, it’s apparently got enough charisma—seriously, it goes from bright orange to purple when it comes in contact with the right chemicals—to captivate the world of scientific discovery.