It’s time to include fungi in global conservation goals

It is no secret that the earth’s biodiversity is at risk. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 26 percent of all mammals, 14 percent of birds and 41 percent of amphibians are endangered worldwide, mainly due to human influences such as climate change and evolution.

Other life forms are also under pressure, but they are harder to count and assess. Some scientists have warned of the mass death of insects, though others say the case has not been proven. And then there are fungi – microbes that often go unnoticed, with an estimated 2-4 million species. Fewer than 150,000 fungi have received formal scientific descriptions and classifications.

If you enjoy bread, wine or soy sauce, or have taken penicillin or immunosuppressive medication, thank the mushrooms that make all these products possible. Apart from baked yeast and button fungi, most fungi remain overlooked and thrive hidden in the dark and moist. But scientists agree that they are valuable organisms worth protecting.

As mycologists, whose biodiversity work includes studying fungi that interact with millipedes, plants, mosquitoes, and true insects, we have devoted our careers to understanding the critical roles that fungi play. These conditions can be beneficial, harmful or neutral to the fungus’ partner organism. But it is no exaggeration to say that without fungi that break down dead matter and recycle its nutrients, life on Earth would be unrecognizable.

A bright red ball with protruding orange spikes clings to an evergreen branch.

A fungal bile on eastern red cedar, produced by the rust fungus Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae. Image courtesy of Matt Kasson, CC BY-ND

Healthy ecosystems need fungi

The amazing biological fungus kingdom includes everything from frogs, molds and yeasts to fungi. Mushrooms are not plants, although they are usually in stock near fresh produce in grocery stores. In fact, they are more closely related to animals.

But mushrooms have some unique properties that set them apart. They grow by budding or as long, often branched, filamentous tubes. To reproduce, fungi typically form spores, a stage of proliferation and dormancy. Instead of taking food into their bodies to eat, fungi release enzymes into their food to break it down and then absorb the sugar that is released. The realm of fungi is very diverse, so many fungi break the mold.

Fungi play important ecological roles worldwide. Some have formed critical partnerships with plant roots for hundreds of millions of years. Others decompose dead plants and animals and return important nutrients to the soil so that other life forms can use them.

Fungi are among the few organisms that can break down lignin, a major constituent of wood that gives plants their stiffness. Without mushrooms, our forests would be filled with huge piles of wood waste.

Still other fungi form unique mutualistic partnerships with insects. Flavodon ambrosius, a white decaying fungus, not only serves as the primary source of nutrition for certain fungal ambrosia beetles, but it also rapidly outcompetes other tree colonizing fungi, enabling these beetles to build large, multigenerational communities. In the same way, leaf-cutting ants travel Leucoagaricus gongylophorus as food by gathering dead plant material in their nests to feed their fungus partner.

Leaf-cutting ants and fungi have a complex symbiotic relationship that has existed for millions of years.

A mostly unknown kingdom

We can only partially appreciate the benefits that mushrooms provide, as scientists have a narrow and very incomplete view of the realm of mushrooms. Imagine trying to put together a puzzle of 4 million pieces with only 3 percent to 5 percent of the pieces. Mycologists struggle to formally describe the Earth’s fungal biodiversity, while at the same time assessing the conservation status of various species and tracking losses.

Pollution, drought, fire and other disturbances all contribute to the loss of precious fungi.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of endangered species includes 551 fungi compared to 58,343 plants and 12,100 insects. About 60 percent of these listed fungal species are gill fungi or lichen fungi, which represent a very narrow sampling of the realm of fungi.

Asked what a fungus looks like, the average person will probably imagine a fungus, which is partly correct. Fungi are “fruit bodies” or reproductive structures that only certain fungi produce. However, most fungi do not produce fruit bodies that are visible to the eye, or any at all, so these “micro-fungi” are largely overlooked.

Many people see mushrooms as scary or disgusting. Today, although the positive interest in fungi is growing, species that cause diseases – such as chyroid fungus in amphibians and white-nose syndrome in bats – are still receiving more attention than fungi that play significant, beneficial roles in the environment.

Protection of our mushroom future

Even with limited knowledge about the status of fungi, there is growing evidence that climate change threatens them as much as it threatens plants, animals and other microbes. Pollution, drought, fire and other disturbances all contribute to the loss of precious fungi.

This is not only true on land. Recent studies of aquatic fungi, which play all sorts of important roles in rivers, lakes and oceans, have given rise to concern that not much is being done to preserve them.

It’s hard to motivate people to worry about something they do not know or understand. And it is difficult to establish effective conservation programs for organisms that are mysterious even to scientists. But people who care about mushrooms are trying. In addition to the IUCN Fungal Conservation Committee, which coordinates global fungal conservation initiatives, various non-governmental and non-profit organizations are in favor of fungi.

Over the past two years, we have seen a wave of public interest in everything to do with mushrooms, from home cultivation kits and cultivation courses to increased enrollment in local mycological communities. We hope that this newfound acceptance can benefit fungi, their habitats and the people who study and manage them. One goal of success would be for people to not only ask if a fungus is toxic or edible, but also if it needs protection.

Australian naturalist Steve Axford photographs mushrooms in Australia’s rainforests and helps scientists document unprecedented species.

Delegations from most of the world’s countries will meet in China this autumn for a major conference on the protection of biodiversity. Their goal is to set international benchmarks to preserve life on Earth in the years to come. Mycologists want the plan to include fungi, yeasts and molds.

Anyone who takes their curiosity outdoors can use social science platforms, such as iNaturalist, to report their observations of fungi and learn more. Joining a mycology club is a great way to learn how to find and harvest mushrooms responsibly without overpucking or damaging their habitats.

Fungi form important networks and partnerships all around us in the environment and move resources and information in all directions between soil, water and other living things. To us, they exemplify the strength of connection and cooperation – valuable traits in this uncertain phase of life on Earth.

The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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