“Spongebob” Mushroom Named

Mushrooms are poisonous, hallucinogenic, glowing, and now, thanks to a new study, named after a children’s cartoon character.

The new species, Spongiforma squarepantsii— found in 2010 in Sarawak, Malaysia—has a spongy appearance that reminded scientists of TV’s Spongebob Squarepants.

“It’s just like a sponge with these big hollow holes,” San Francisco State University’s Dennis Desjardin said in a statement. “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.” (Read more about the mushroom.)

There’s only one other species known so far in the Spongiforma genus, which lives in central Thailand and has a different color and odor. S. squarepantsii has a bright orange hue and smells “vaguely fruity or strongly musty,” according to the study, published in May in the journal Mycologia.


Spongiforma squarepantsii

Image courtesy Tom Bruns, UC Berkeley

When Desjardin and colleagues looked at the new mushroom under a scanning electron microscope, they found even more spongy similarities—for instance, the spore-producing area of the fungus resembles a seafloor carpeted in tube sponges (see picture below).

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first species recently named after a cartoon character—at least familiarly. In western Colombia in 2010, scientists happened upon a new beaked toad with a long, pointy, snoutlike nose that earned a nickname of the Mr. Burns toad, after the nefarious villain from The Simpsons television series, Conservation International expedition leader Robin Moore said in a November statement.

(Read my recent post on unusual species names.)

One thing’s for certain—there are more more weird fungi out there. Only five percent of Earth’s fungi species have been found, and there may be up to three million still unknown, according to the university.


The mushroom’s spores resemble tube sponges.

Image courtesy Tom Bruns, UC Berkeley

Desjardin has done his fair share scouting out new fungi species—in 2009, I reported on his discovery of Mycena luxaeterna (see picture), which glows nonstop in the Brazilian night.

His team searched for glow-in-the-dark mushrooms during new moons, in rain forests so dark the researchers often couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, Desjardin told National Geographic News in 2009. (See more pictures of glowing mushrooms.)

But “when you look down at the ground, it’s like looking up at the sky,” Desjardin said. “Every little ‘star’ was a little mushroom—it was just fantastic.”

Check out more weird coverage on National Geographic News.


Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.