How Fungi Are Breaking The Binary: A Queer Approach To Ecology

12:13 minutes

a bunch of fuzzy pink mushrooms on a log.
A split gill mushroom growing out of a log. Credit: Bernard Spragg

As Pride month comes to a close, many people are reflecting on the past, present, and future of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

An interdisciplinary group of scientists, researchers, and artists are using queerness as a lens to better understand the natural world, too. It’s a burgeoning field called queer ecology, which aims to break down binaries and question our assumptions of the natural world based on heterosexuality. 

For example, there are plenty of examples of same-sex animal pairings in the wild, like penguins, chimps, and axolotls. There are also plants that change sexes, or have a combination of male and female parts, like the mulberry tree. 

But perhaps the most queer kingdom of all is fungi. Mushrooms are not easily forced into any type of binary. For example, the Schizophyllum commune, or the split gill mushroom, has 23,000 sexes, making it somewhat of a queer icon in the field of mycology. 

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks with Patty Kaishian, incoming curator of mycology at the New York State Museum, about how fungi might help us expand our understandings of sexuality, identity, and hierarchy. They also discuss how queer ecology can help people of all sexualities reconnect with the natural world. 

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Patty Kaishian

Dr. Patty Kaishian is incoming Curator of Mycology at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York.

Segment Transcript

KATHLEEN DAVIS: This is Science Friday. I’m Kathleen Davis.

A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk about why scientists are cloning species on the edge of extinction. Plus, remembering engineer and historian Henry Petroski, who chronicled our designs and our engineering failures. But first, a conversation about expanding our ways of thinking about the natural world.

As we close out Pride Month, many of us are reflecting on the past, present, and future of the LGBTQ community. But what if we extended our understanding of queerness into the natural world, too– into ecology? You’ve likely heard about same-sex animal pairings– penguins, baboons, axolotls– that’s just naming a few, not to mention plants that change sex or have a combination of male and female parts– like the mulberry tree. But perhaps the most queer kingdom of all is fungi.

Joining me now to tell us about how fungi might help us expand our understandings of sexuality, identity, and hierarchy in nature is my guest Patti Kaishian, the incoming curator of mycology at the New York State Museum, in Albany, New York. Welcome back to Science Friday.

PATTI KAISHIAN: Hi, Kathleen. Thanks for having me.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So let’s start with the basics here. I mean, this is a new kind of thinking for me and, I’m sure, a lot of other people out there. So tell me, what is queer ecology, and how does this help us understand this whole field of ecology?

PATTI KAISHIAN: Yeah. So you’re not the only one, certainly, that this type of thinking is new for. So queer ecology is an emerging interdisciplinary field. I’m approaching the field as an academic scientist– as a mycologist. And I’m interested in exploring lots of aspects of ecology through what we would call a queer lens.

So I’m going to break down the parts of this term, “queer ecology.” So starting with “ecology,” which more people are probably familiar with, this is the study of organisms and their interactions with each other and within their habitats. And then “queer” is an umbrella term that describes all manner of behavior or identity that is outside of what we would call the heteronormative box.

So queer ecology is a way of exploring how organisms from across the tree of life are interacting and behaving in ways that we would consider not heteronormative. So this could mean same-sex couples, sexuality that is changing or fluid throughout the lifetime of an organism. It could also be ways in which organisms just don’t fit in the box that we have set in terms of their reproductive biology.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So I want to clarify a little bit here– that when we’re talking about queer ecology, we’re not necessarily taking our human understandings of gender and putting them on animals, plants, and fungi. Is that right?

PATTI KAISHIAN: Yeah, that’s right to a certain extent. For example, the term “gender,” that is a social word. That’s a word that we talk about in the context of human behaviors and our social orientations. So gender is the relationship you have to your own sexual identity and expression. And that inherently is something that we can’t extend to other organisms without having a conversation with them about it.

But what we do know in studying all sorts of organisms, from fungi to birds to lizards and algae, is that the way in which all sorts of organisms are moving throughout the world, there’s so much variation in their reproduction and in their sexuality. So it’s not actually us extending our human perceptions of these things onto those organisms. These are just actually really observable biological realities for them.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: And there’s this notion that we hear from scientists that anthropomorphizing animals and plants is bad; using our own human ideas to understand them misses the point. How do you feel about this?

PATTI KAISHIAN: I think it’s a really interesting conversation. Because on the one hand, yes, I think it can be irresponsible as a scientist to project onto another organism aspects of our own lived experience as human beings. The flip side of the coin is that if we don’t allow the possibility that other organisms are as dynamic and complex as we are– if we don’t believe that they can, for example, feel pleasure or pain– that’s also not really scientific. Because that would be to suggest that humans are so exceptional that we are just set apart from the entire tree of life, right?

And so over time, we’ve learn more and more about how different organisms are capable of things beyond what we could previously comprehend. And the fact that we’ve set our expectations so low is a bit of a problem. And that’s a cultural artifact of how we approach science.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to get into some examples. And let’s talk about your field of study, which is fungi. Let’s start with their biology.

PATTI KAISHIAN: Sure. So fungal biology is really complicated because there are so many different fungi out there. There’s actually millions and millions of species. There are estimates that there are about 3 million species. But a new paper came out even more recently proposing that there could be as many as 22 million species.


PATTI KAISHIAN: So regardless, there’s just an incredible number of fungi. So you can’t even neatly summarize all of the ways that they behave. But we do know that, within the kingdom, there are a number of examples of fungi that really don’t have a binary conception of sex or we can’t apply one onto them. We can’t project– we can’t anthropomorphize– a binary idea of sex onto fungi.

For example, there is a fungus– this is sort of considered a queer icon within mycology– the fungus Schizophyllum commune– that’s its Latin name, and its common name is the split gill– which is a mushroom that has as many as maybe 23,000 different sexes or mating types.


PATTI KAISHIAN: Yeah, it’s kind of crazy.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I mean, that’s incredible. Are there other fungi that challenge our views on sex and gender?

PATTI KAISHIAN: Absolutely. So I study this group of parasitic fungi. It’s a taxonomic order called the Laboulbeniales, which is sort of a mouthful. But they are another really diverse group of fungi. There’s, we think, tens of thousands of species of them. And they are insect-associated parasites.

Some of those fungi have their reproductive structures in the same fruiting body– in the same sort of phallus we would call it– and then others have, like, there are multiple sexes in different types of fruiting bodies. So they can basically have the same structures in one or multiple structures in different fruiting bodies. Then we also know of other lineages of fungi that are totally asexual. And then there’s other types of combinations as well. There’s many different ways of being and reproducing and finding partnership within the fungal kingdom.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I mean, one really cool thing about fungi is that they challenge this idea of what it means to be an individual, right? Does that aspect of fungi fit into this lens of queer ecology?

PATTI KAISHIAN: So one thing I would like to just explain a little bit more is the queer dimension of the term “queer ecology.” So the project of queer ecology is about examining what gets taken for granted as knowledge in science.

For example, how is it that we’ve been documenting queer behavior in biology for over 100 years, but why is it that we are only really just starting to talk about it commonly now? And why does it come as a surprise to people that other organisms can be queer as well? That is a function of power, right? That’s sort of who gets to make determinations in science and who gets to publish their data, and how does data get talked about? All of these things are, of course, very much social and constructed.

So queer theory is pushing us as scientists to examine these boxes that we’ve made and ask questions about their validity. And can they be understood differently? The individual is a very powerful unit in scientific understanding, especially in taxonomy, which is what I study. Which is the naming and describing of species. And it’s all about delineating the difference between different species so we can better understand them.

And that, of course, is very functional. That gives us a lot of information. But it might not tell us the full picture. How can we understand, for example, a species of tree that is entirely dependent on a partnership it has with a fungus? If the tree simply would not have evolved without this fungal partnership, does it make sense to fully think of it as an individual?

And so fungi are doing these types of interactions around us all the time. They’re all inside our bodies. There’s more fungal and bacterial species in our bodies than there are human cells. Fungi are forming these intricate partnerships with 90% of terrestrial plants. And so they make us think about, well, what does the term “individual” even really mean? And how useful is it in understanding biology or other things beyond biology as well?

So the answer is not to do away with the concept of individual, but to complicate it a little bit and to try to imagine what could we learn if we de-emphasize that– if we thought about webs of interaction a bit more?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: What are the benefits of opening our minds and thinking about nature as a little bit queer?

PATTI KAISHIAN: So I think everyone can learn from queer theory and from queer ecology regardless of your own identity. And so I think what queer ecology teaches us is that A, we are not so apart from nature as we might have been taught; B, we have the capacity to learn a lot from the organisms around us in their myriad diversity of form, and use that as inspiration for better and more equal societies. And I think we can learn how to be more in love with the natural world also and less rigid about how we extend our care to organisms.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: I want to end with a way that people can appreciate and maybe reconnect with nature a little bit more than maybe we’re used to doing. And this is this idea of a sit spot. Can you tell me what a sit spot is?

PATTI KAISHIAN: Yes. I love this idea. I learned of it when I was an undergrad, where you would go usually into the forest, but it can be done in an urban setting– like a park or a desert environment– just any place that you can routinely access near your home. And I teach my students to go once a week for about 30 minutes to an hour.

And you simply start to observe all of the life forms that you see. It’s essentially a meditative, observational practice of naturalism. And it starts to change your level of attention to the environment around you. The more you go, the more you start to see.

And it’s not just because you have more encounters with more organisms. It actually starts, over time, to change the way your brain functions. You start to actually notice more things. And then, over time– over weeks or months or hopefully even years– you might start to see– and you’ll very likely start to see– your relation to that place become very personal.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Patti Kaishian is the incoming curator of mycology at the New York State Museum, in Albany, New York. Thank you so much for joining me today.

PATTI KAISHIAN: Thank you for having me. I loved being here.

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