In the UK we have anywhere between 12,000 and 20,000 species of Fungi – a number which includes yeasts and moulds, as well as more familiar mushrooms and toadstools. This wide ranging estimate of fungal diversity gives a clue to the surprising lack of knowledge that still exists for this group, with the result that fungi are typically of low priority status in conservation policy.
Often found thriving on decomposing leaves, fungi produce fruiting bodies, such as the stem and umbrella-like cap of a mushroom, from networks of subterranean hyphae. The tiny tube-like structures of hyphae, which make up the majority of the fungal organism, collectively form a web of threads known as a mycelium. It is these threads that combine together to produce the fruiting bodies, which appear above ground only briefly to disperse the spores required for reproduction.
Currently, very few conservation measures are put in place explicitly for fungi and even the most prominent species are less well understood than any other bird or mammal you might name. Their own life-history works against them here, as the fruiting bodies we can see easily are ephemeral and can undergo unpredictable fluctuations in numbers. The relationship between the number of fruiting bodies and the health/size of the fungal mycelium is essentially unknown, which makes identifying effective and appropriate conservation measures highly challenging.
The British Mycological Society (BMS) consider Fungi to be in urgent need of conservation and aim to promote wider understanding of the vital role they play within ecosystems. The BMS works with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the red-listing of fungi – the IUCN’s five specialist fungal groups organize the ‘The Global Fungal Red List Initiative’. This project aims to focus the expertise of academics and the citizen science community to take action for this ecologically and economically important group of species.
People and Fungi
Fungi may be going unnoticed by conservation policy makers and, notorious hallucinogenic properties aside, this perhaps should not be a surprise – they can be easy to overlook, hidden away in the leaf litter. However, we don’t need to look far beyond apocryphal tales of berserker Vikings consuming Fly Agaric, to reveal a fascinating organism that has a complex relationship with humanity.
Fungi are undoubtedly of huge economic importance. They are needed in the making of many foods (such as bread, beer, wine and cheese) and as source of medicines, including antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. Recently, fungi have been used to “grow” furniture using a compound called “myceliated wood”, which is formed when mycelium mixes with wood chips. The chitin lining of fungal cell walls of is crucial in making this product strong and flexible.
Collecting and eating wild fungi is also a favourite pastime and a prized skill for many people. Those who have the expertise to find edible fungi, while avoiding the small minority of poisonous ones (particularly the poisonous ‘lookalikes’ of edible species), have access to some of the world’s most sought after culinary ingredients. Although, the fact that these species are extremely difficult to cultivate commercially means their use can put unwelcome pressure on wild populations.
Ecological Importance & Conservation
Fungi play an essential role in ecosystems across the planet. They are decomposers and form a key part of nutrient cycling – fungi are the primary decomposers of debris plant material such as cellulose and lignin. They have also established mutualistic symbiotic relationships with many organisms – examples include: mycorrhizae and plant roots, symbioses with cyanobacteria to form lichens and even associations with insects. Overall, the fungal kingdom forms a substantial part of Earth’s biodiversity, with global estimates of total species numbers in the millions.
It is believed fungi are threatened by habitat loss, climate change, over exploitation and pollution, however we do not currently have the data to accurately assess these risks – species may already be declining and going extinct without our knowledge. The vast majority of fungal species have not yet been assessed for the IUCN Red List, but the ‘The Global Fungal Red List Initiative’ aims to get hundreds of the most threatened species assessed and their conservation status classified. The success of this project relies on the voluntary work of experts and enthusiasts and nominations are encouraged from anyone who can provide information on fungal species that may be globally threatened. For more information visit their website http://iucn.ekoo.se/en/iucn. Building up the knowledge base for fungi will mean we can more accurately predict the effects of factors such as habitat loss and climate change. It will also help us to better understand which species are genuinely rare – and therefore in need of conservation action – and which are simply under recorded.
For me, a decline in the remarkable diversity of fungi would be a great loss. I marvel at their strange and varied morphology on every woodland walk – from the orange, coral-like fingers of the Stagshorn, to the syrup-drenched sponge of the Penny Bun. Or perfectly spherical Puff Balls, which – when glanced by a drop of rain – discharge their microscopic spores into the environment like cannons. And if the sight of them isn’t enough, don’t forget the unmistakeable, and strangely delightful, foetid reek of a Stinkhorn. So my plea to conservation groups out there is, in your incredible work protecting the furred, feathered and the flowered species of the planet, don’t neglect the fantastic kingdom of the fungi.
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