The conservation crisis facing Australia’s fungi

By Angela Heathcote 11 February 2019
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Having a comprehensive understanding of fungi – their distribution, populations and reproduction – will be critical to understanding the threats to their conservation. But we’ve got a long way to go, says one expert.

Mycologist Alison Pouliot spends six months of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and the other half of the year in the Southern Hemisphere. “I follow autumn,” Alison says. “And I’ve done that for 20 years. I get myself a double dose of fungi.” On these travels Alison has encountered a range of perceptions towards fungi.

“There’s a greater acceptance of fungi as a part of biodiversity and ecology in Continental Europe, but also as something useful to humans,” she explains. “Australian perspectives are, overwhelmingly, what we call mycophobic.” For many people, fungi are associated with disease and rotting, or something you don’t want in your garden.

It’s this kind of fear that Alison is seeking to breakdown in her new book The Allure of Fungi. “Europeans used them as a food source, which triggered the scientific study of fungi,” she says. “In Switzerland they even have mushroom inspectors. You show them your basket and they pluck out the poisonous ones. So many people have that skill.”

The animosity for fungi in Australia runs deep. “The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 lists almost 2000 animal and plant species for protection, but not fungi,” Alison says, which is a separate kingdom altogether. “There’s two species of fungi on that list but not for protection, they’re listed as threats.”

That the EPBC Act does not include a single species of fungi, Alison says, partly explains the lack of recognition for their ecological importance. “When your national legislation doesn’t see a single fungus as worthy of protection and the only role it has is as a threat to ‘biodiversity’, you start to see how public misunderstanding is shaped by that.”

Related: The future is fungi

Australia: the kingdom of fungi

Australia is home to more than 15,000 species of fungi, 8000 of which are macrofungi, visible to the naked eye. The rest are microscopic. However, Alison says it’s quite possible the actual number is in the hundreds of thousands, substantially more than the entirety of Europe. “They have more knowledge of the species they’ve got and we’ve got more fungi and less knowledge,” she says.

Our colourful range of fungi is attributable to Australia’s diverse microclimates and ecosystems. “If you drew a line from Thursday Island, just off north Queensland, all the way down to South Bruny Island, Tasmania, you’d pass mangroves, coastal grasslands, tropical ecosystems all the way down to the stringybark forests of the south. And this diversity is reflected in the fungi.”

Approximately 40 Australian animals rely heavily on fungi, particularly during Autumn. In some cases, it can make up 90 per cent of their diet. “ Fungi underpins almost every terrestrial ecosystem in the world, creating architecture below the soil between trees and different plants. They play a very connective role,” says Alison, which she believes is under appreciated.

Prior to colonisation, Alison says Aboriginal Australians probably held the oldest knowledge of fungi. “People often say the Chinese and Chileans have the oldest knowledge of fungi. However, Aboriginal knowledge potentially goes back over 60,000 years and counting. It’s likely to be the oldest knowledge of fungi and yet we’ve lost a lot of it.”

Conservation of fungi

In September 2018, Alison, along with her colleagues from Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, published a paper on the recognition of the discipline of conservation mycology. They described fungi as “ignored” by conservation initiatives “due to the paucity of information on demography and ecology,” and a lack of awareness of fungal diversity, among other issues.

The lack of data on Australian fungi have been detrimental for their conservation. “To gain protections under the EPBC Act you have to know all about a species distribution, its life history and it reproductive capacity. But we’ve only just started to understand the distribution of our fungi and worked out which ones are rare and which ones are limited,” Alison says.

Related: On the nose: wildlife detection dog successfully trained to find rare ‘finger’ fungus

In July 2005, members of the Field Naturalist Club of Victoria came across what could be Australia’s most rare fungus. It was located on a single narrow-leaf peppermint gum and is yet to be found anywhere else. Each year, Alison says, the naturalists monitor the tree, and despite their efforts, they’ve never located the fungus anywhere else.

“Is it rare or under surveyed? We don’t know. If we got 10 people out tomorrow to survey it for a week maybe we’d discover that it isn’t rare. That said, naturalists have been looking for it for years. Either way we need to keep searching for these data,” Alison says.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) established a Global Fungi Red List in 2013. A group of Australian mycologists are currently submitting a list of potential candidates for the list. This includes the bunyip egg (Claustula fischeri), a bulbous, white fungus that’s only been found at seven sites around Australia.

There have been a few steps made to protect species of fungi in Australia. Tea tree fingers (Hypocreopsis amplectens) is currently listed as critically endangered under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988. “Until recently it was only found on long-unburnt coastal tea tree and only in a couple of locations but recently it was also found on banksia and paperbark, but is still very limited in distribution,” Alison says.

In 1995, Australia became one of only seven countries with a conservation reserve specifically for fungi. Located in Lane Cove, NSW, the area is home to a group of charismatic fungi called wax caps.

Wax cap fungus
Wax cap fungus. Image credit: Alison Pouliot

Fungi fanatics

The current fungus craze sweeping Australia is doing wonders for their conservation, Alison says. “Much of the recent information about fungi is coming from citizen science, like the Fungi-map Project. Most records of fungus distribution are coming from the community.” In Alison’s opinion, it’s this public awareness and contribution that will drive the conservation of fungi.

“Conservation decisions aren’t just made on the basis of scientists saying ‘Oh we need to look at this species.’ A lot comes from the public response to a conservation issue. Most recently, you’ve got people from Otway Landcare going out and surveying fungi after the fires and this is critical. It provides more of a platform for fungi to be included in survey monitoring.

“Conservation is also about care,” she adds. “If we don’t care, fungi won’t get a look in. They’ll never be on the conservation agenda.

“Scientific understanding coupled with care offer the best possibility for future fungal conservation.”