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When Mushrooms Ruled the Earth?
A new idea about one of the most puzzling life-forms ever.

This article was published in The Smithsonian Magazine
by David Zax
submitted by Diane Albright

It towered over the landscape 400 million years ago. One of the weirdest things that ever existed, it reigned as the tallest land based organism (reaching at least 28 feet) for some 70 million years. But what was it? Ever since the discovery of Prototaxites fossils more than a century ago, scientists have debated the question with some saying it was an algae and others a primative conifer. (It’s Latin name means “like a yew ancester.”) Now a study says it was more like a giant mushroomn, University of Chicago paleontologist C. Kevin Boyce, Smithsonian paleontologist Carol Hotton and others found that different carbon isotopes or atomic forms in fossil specimens in the Smithsonian’s collections suggest Prototaxites was a fungus. The find thrills Francis Hueber, 78, a National Museum of Natural History emeritus paleontologist. He collected Prototaxites fossils on four continents and advocated the fungus theory: “It’s so wonderful to finally have it recognized - before it was posthumous!”

Published in The Smithsonian Magazine