SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Squirrels and toxic mushrooms
By Ned Rozell


September 06, 2007

Fairbanks reader Darleen Masiak recently saw a red squirrel carrying an Amanita mushroom across her deck, presumably to stash it in its midden for the winter. She wanted to know how such a small mammal could survive after eating a mushroom that is toxic in large doses.

jpg Alaska mushroom

An Alaska mushroom, Amanita muscaria, sometimes cached and eaten by squirrels.
Photo by Tohru Saito.

Fungus expert Gary Laursen of the University of Alaska Fairbanks confirmed that forest squirrels, both red and flying, cache Amanita mushrooms as well as other 'psychoactive' mushrooms that affect the central nervous system. He has dug into squirrel middens in the boreal forest and has found many samples of the mushrooms. He said a biologist recently contacted him and told he'd seen grouse digging up and eating mushrooms that would be toxic in large doses to humans.

"Many animals are known to go after the psychoactive mushrooms," Laursen said.

Brian Barnes, a physiologist and the director of the Institute of Arctic Biology, said a squirrel's liver might be able to detoxify the active agents in the mushrooms, but he knows of no evidence for this. Barnes studies arctic ground squirrels on Alaska's North Slope. He thinks young male ground squirrels might be eating lots of fungi, including potent ones, as they stir in their dens from hibernation. The squirrels often emerge from hibernation fatter than when they went in.

"I wonder if, while in their cold and completely dark hibernaculum, arctic ground squirrels are eating psychoactive mushrooms and whether they respond by experiencing hallucinations, feelings of well being, and laughing fits, as do humans (or so I'm told)," Barnes wrote in an email.



This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.


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