Specimen Spotlight – Dictyonema huaorani

August 30, 2021
thumbnail - Dictyonema specimen

This specimen of nɇnɇndapɇ or Dictyonema huaorani Dal-Forno, Schmull, Lücking & Lawrey (FH00377315) is extraordinary on many levels: It is an extremely rare species (so far, the Farlow houses the only known specimen in the world) that was used several generations ago in cultural practices by the Waorani or Huaorani, a native Amerindian tribe living in the Amazonian forest. The story of the specimen highlights the importance of preserving traditional knowledge, biodiversity conservation, careful collecting, thorough documentation of specimen-associated information, and the importance of herbaria and fungaria as reservoirs of undescribed species and as fundamental resources for research in all fields. Besides that, this is also one of the most colorful lichens in the Farlow Herbarium, and one of my favorite specimens next to the “Mummy Lichen”.

The story started for me in 2012, when lichenologist Robert Lücking emailed and asked if we housed a specimen that was mentioned as an undescribed Dictyonema in a paper by E. Wade Davis and James A. Yost in 1983. Davis and Yost had collected this very rare species in 1981 in eastern Ecuador (Davis & Yost 1051) during an ethnobotanical study with the Huaorani. Lücking specializes in lichen taxonomy, systematics, ecology and uses of tropical lichens, specifically basidiolichens such as Dictyonema. He was working with fellow lichenologists James D. Lawrey and Manuela Dal-Forno on a phylogenetic analysis of this particular lichen group. The mention of the undescribed Dictyonema piqued his interest.

The late lichenologist Mason E. Hale Jr. had identified the specimen originally as Dictyonema sp. and we filed it accordingly in our collection under Dictyonema indet. I sent Lücking a digital scan of the specimen and that started the amazing journey of disentangling the specimens’ morphology, anatomy, phylogeny, chemical composition, and connection to its use and cultural importance in Huaorani culture (Schmull et al. 2014; Davis & Yost 1983). One challenge that we faced was the balance between preserving the specimen so that its scientific integrity was kept intact for future research projects, and to “sacrifice” enough material so that its morphology and anatomy, phylogenetic relationship, and secondary compounds could be analyzed. This was a hard line to walk, especially since it is the only known specimen in any collection in the world. With the dedicated help of Jon Clardy and Shugeng Cao from the Harvard Medical School we were able to get indications that hallucinogenic compounds may be produced by Dictyonema huaorani, but fresh material and the analysis of the appropriate chemical reference substance would be needed to confirm this tentative result. But morphological and anatomical characters as well as phylogenetic relationships were unraveled. The species was described and the specimen at the Farlow became a holotype and is filed in the herbarium accordingly. Details about this fascinating specimen can be found in the two publications mentioned below.

image of Dictyonema specimen

This project was supported by grant DEB 0841405 from the National Science Foundation, “Phylogenetic diversity of mycobionts and photobionts in the cyanolichen genus Dictyonema, with emphasis on the Neotropics and the Galapagos Islands” (PI: J. Lawrey; Co-PIs R. Lücking, P. Gillevet).


  1. Davis, E. W. & J. A. Yost (1983). Novel Hallucinogenes from Eastern Ecuador. Botanical Museum Leaflets 29(3): 291-295.
  2. Schmull, M., Dal-Forno, M., Lücking, R., Cao, S., Clardy, J. & D. Lawrey (2014). Dictyonema huaorani (Agaricales: Hygrophoraceae), a new lichenized basisiomycete from Amazonian Ecuador with presumed hallucinogenic properties. The Bryologist 117(4): 386-394.

Many thanks to Dr. Michaela Schmull for this month's specimen spotlight!