Forgotten fungi’s race against time
Out of sight and out of mind fungi play important roles in ecosystems but have been largely forgotten in global conservation listings
The only time most people see fungi is when it’s sexy time. Mushrooms and puffballs are what fungi produce when it’s time to reproduce.
The rest of the time fungi are alive, but hidden underground or inside wood. With so much time spent out of sight they’re also out of mind for most people.
Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research botanist Dr Peter Buchanan has been flying the flag for fungi for most of his career.
This week he and other scientists from around the world have gathered in Melbourne working to get endangered Australasian fungi included on a global list of threatened species by the end of 2019. The hope is once on the list, they’ll get more conservation attention.
“I’ve been championing the three Fs.”
He thinks instead of flora and fauna, it should be flora, fauna, and fungi. His argument is the fungi kingdom is bigger than the plant kingdom.
There are around 8000 species of native fungi which have been described in New Zealand, this only represents the tip of the iceberg. Buchanan estimates there are around 20,000 to 24,000 species.
Until 2014 only three species of fungi were on the International Union for Conservation of Nature global Red List of threatened species. In comparison the list has over 10,000 plant species.
Like plants and animals, fungi face extinction and habitat loss thanks to intensive agriculture, over-harvesting, pollution and climate change.
He thinks 20 New Zealand fungi species are at a very high risk of extinction with situations as precarious as kākāpō.
Buchanan and the scientists are hoping to compile enough information to get 50 New Zealand and 50 Australian fungi species added to the list. The workshop will evaluate their predicted survival against the Red List criteria. Some of the work they are doing will flow through to an update of New Zealand’s threatened species list, which is a localised threat classification list.
Inclusion in lists could lead to increased awareness from public, and local and central government. He said while fungi might lack the charisma of kākāpō some species may face a greater threat.
Say hello to your fungal associates
Fungi turns up in the strangest of places. It can live on human bodies as athlete’s foot, thrush or ringworm. It can cause more serious issues, such as the infection-causing drug-resistant Candida auris, which is emerging as a global health threat. The outbreak of aspergillosis that killed seven kākāpō this year was caused by fungus.
But, without fungi, bread would be flat and the craft beer scene wouldn't have happened.
Yeast, essential to the brewing process, is part of the fungi kingdom. No yeast and there would be no beer, wine or cider.
Animals, insects and plants also rely on fungi.
Buchanan said when most people look at a forest, they’ll see trees.
“Almost every tree in the forest is only growing as well as it is because of the fungi that are associated with the roots of that tree. And almost all plants of all kinds, not just trees, have fungal associates that are part of the whole growing system.”
Human attempts to help plants grow can affect fungi.
“We pour fertiliser on our land to apparently improve nutrition for the plants but that destroys or limits the effectiveness of the fungi and association with the roots. They’re helping the plant to grow and they’re getting carbohydrates, sugars from the plants to the fungus through the roots.”
Some fungi will happily make their home on a wide range of different plants. Some fungi prefer just one, or a few, plant species. Picky fungi can run into problems.
“If something is only able to associate with one host and if the host itself is under threat, then arguably the fungus on the host is more threatened than the host itself.”
Some of these species are ones which Buchanan has been gathering data on so they can be submitted for Red List consideration.
Others are known to exist only in a very small location. One of those, close to Buchanan’s heart and doesn’t even have a name yet. It will be assessed at this week’s workshop.
Only three specimens of the fungus have ever been found, and none since 1972. All three were found close to Waikato’s Mount Pirongia, all growing on pukatea trees. The area is now surrounded by farms and it's possible where it was once found could have been converted to pasture.
From the genus Gandomera, the fungus is what’s called a bracket fungus which sticks out like a shelf from trees. This one is about 30cm across
Its appearance is similar to a more common fungus and this has caused numerous, disappointing, false alarms. The rare version has a shiny upper surface, the common species has a matte surface.
“When it’s raining people misinterpret a wet surface for a shiny surface. Often, I receive photographs of a wet bracket fungi that looks like it’s got a shiny top but it’s just the water."
Buchanan still has the public searching for it.
“I’ve been looking for many years. It will be a great day when someone finds it, unless it’s extinct. That’s what I fear.”