Dwindling fungi?

A brief search through the literature resulted in quite a few studies and even a few books about fungi conservation, so I feel pretty confident in saying that people are paying attention to this issue. At the same time, a lot of that effort seems to be coming from the last 20 years, so it hasn’t always been on everyone’s conservation radar. And although fungi conservation efforts now seem to encompass the globe, a large proportion of current information comes from one continent: Europe.


I found this fungus growing in a managed pine forest.

The European Council for the Conservation of Fungi started collecting data and assessing species’ situations in the 1980s (Courtecuisse 2001). Following two meetings in 1991 and 1992 plus the recognition that across northern and central Europe fungi communities were changing dramatically, country-specific efforts in Europe to document native fungi presence and population trends accelerated (Venturella et al. 1997). Researchers in other locations were also recognizing the need to protect fungi- for example in 1994 234 species were listed for protection in the Pacific Northwest (Molina 2008)- but the bulk of the effort has been in Europe, such that a review of fungi conservation in 2014 found that 33 of 35 Red Lists of threatened and endangered fungi are from Europe (Heilmann-Clausen et al. 2014). What are the threats to fungi? It’s the same laundry list we’ve seen with other organisms: habitat degradation and loss, climate change, and pollution. And with regard to pollution, the issue is not just toxic chemicals, but also use of fertilizer– grassland fungi in Ireland, for example, are found in low-nutrient soils, and when fertilizers are applied to the soil, it becomes too rich for most species (McHugh et al. 2001)- these effects can persist for decades.

Why should we care about fungi? Well, they are pretty important members of the ecosystems around us- more important than I had realized, actually. Aside from our ability to use some of them as food [more than 1100 species collected for food and medicinal uses around the world (Boa 2004)], they are an important food source for a number of small mammals in boreal and eucalypt forests (Mcilwee and Johnson 1998). They are also important as food and shelter to fire-dependent insects (Wikars 2001) and are even cultivated and harvested by some species of ants (Mueller et al. 2001). Although people may tend to think about fungi as dirty and even deadly organisms, they are often vital to ecosystems in their roles as decomposers, making carbon and other nutrients available to living organisms (Stenlid and Gustafsson 2001). A number of species are necessary for germinated orchid seeds to establish as seedlings and grow into adults (McCormick et al. 2006), and a majority of land plants in general get nutrients from root-mycorrhizal associations in the soil. As it turns out, these plant-fungus partnerships are more beneficial to the plants than we had originally thought- a review of plant pathogen and pest studies found that plants with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi were better able to resist fungal diseases and nematodes (Borowicz 2001).

So fungi are an important part of our world, and we’re becoming aware that, like many other organisms, they are under threat from habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. We’re probably also becoming aware of ways to better monitor and protect fungi, too. For my next post, I’ll look into efforts to support fungi populations around the globe.

Works cited:
Boa E. 2004. Wild edible fungi: a global overview of their use and importance to people. Rome: FAO
Borowicz VA. 2001. Do Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi Alter Plant-Pathogen Relations? Ecology 82:3057–3068.
Courtecuisse R. 2001. Current trends and perspectives for the global conservation of fungi. In: Moore D, Nauta MM, Evans SE, Rotheroe M, editors. Fungal Conservation: Issues and Solutions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 7–18.
Heilmann-Clausen J, Barron ES, Boddy L, Dahlberg A, Griffith GW, Norden J, Ovaskainen O, Perini C, Senn-Irlet B, Halme P. 2014. A fungal perspective on conservation biology. Conserv. Biol. 29:61–68.
McCormick MK, Whigham DF, Sloan D, O’Malley K, Hodkinson B. 2006. Orchid–Fungus Fidelity: A Marriage Meant to Last? Ecology 87:903–911.
McHugh R, Mitchel D, Wright M, Anderson R. 2001. The fungi of Irish grassland and their value for nature conservation. Biol. Environ. Proc. R. Ir. Acad. 101B:225–243.
Mcilwee AP, Johnson CN. 1998. The contribution of fungus to the diets of three mycophagous marsupials in Eucalyptus forests, revealed by stable isotope analysis. Funct. Ecol. 12:223–231.
Molina R. 2008. Protecting rare, little known, old-growth forest-associated fungi in the Pacific Northwest USA: a cast study in fungal conservation. Mycol. Res. 112:613–638.
Mueller UG, Schultz TR, Currie CR, Adams RMM, Malloch D. 2001. The Origin of the Attine Ant-Fungus Mutualism. Q. Rev. Biol. 76:169–197.
Stenlid J, Gustafsson M. 2001. Are Rare Wood Decay Fungi Threatened by Inability to Spread? Ecol. Bull. 49:85–91.
Venturella G, Perini C, Barluzzi C, Pacioni G, Bernicchia A, Padovan F, Quadraccia L, Onofri S. 1997. Towards a Red Data List of fungi for Italy. Bocconea 5:867–872.
Wikars L-O. 2001. The Wood-Decaying Fungus Daldinia loculata (Xylariaceae) as an Indicator of Fire-Dependent Insects. Ecol. Bull. 49:263–268.