Fungi Need Some Love, Too

As neither animal nor plant, the fungus is often the odd organism out—and conservation is no exception, scientists said Saturday at the World Conservation Congress.

Of the 19,817 species in the 2012 Red List of Threatened Species, only three fungi species—one mushroom and two lichens—are listed.

This doesn’t mean fungi have somehow avoided the fate of many other declining species, but rather, there aren’t a lot of people studying them, Gregory Mueller, a fungi expert at the Chicago Botanic Garden, told me.

So, as a fan of the underappreciated, I was happy to hear Mueller announce a new 18-month initiative to collect more data on fungi and figure out which ones may need protection by IUCN.

A Cantharellus mushroom, a type of chanterelle, is listed as threatened by several European countries. Photograph courtesy Gregory Mueller

The initiative is a joint venture of five IUCN Species Survival Commission fungal specialist groups, whose names alone are enough to make you a fungi lover.

There’s the Cup Fungus, Truffle and Allies; Lichen; Mushroom, Bracket, and Puffball (chaired by Mueller); Rusts and Smuts (my personal favorite); and last but not least, the Chytrid, Zygomycete, Downy Mildew, and Slime Moulds—yes, even slime can get a fair shake in the world of fungi.

Why save fungi? For one, they’re nature’s recyclers, processing a lot of dead organic material. They’re also “intimately linked with human well-being,” for instance as food and a source of drugs such as antibiotics, according to IUCN.

The crimson waxcap is disappearing as grasslands are converted to agriculture. Photograph courtesy Martyn Ainsworth, Royal Botanic Garden Kew

Mueller told me that fungi are disappearing largely due to loss of habitat, especially species that are dependent on a particular type of host—say a type of tree—to survive.

“If [the fungi] happens to be on a rare and threatened plant, [the fungi] automatically becomes rare and threatened,” he said.

For instance, one of the largest mushrooms in the world, the nobel polypore, is found only in old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, and may plummet if these forests are destroyed.

 A nobel polypore fungus. Photograph courtesy Noah Siegel

Nitrogen pollution from industry and automobile exhaust is also hammering fungi worldwide, although the exact reason is unknown, he noted.

Lastly, some species of fungi—such as the caterpillar fungus in Tibet—is being overharvested. The fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, takes over the bodies of caterpillar larvae then shoots up like finger-size blades of grass out of the dead insects’ heads.

(Read about “Tibet’s Golden ‘Worm'” in National Geographic magazine.)

The caterpillar fungus is being overharvested in Tibet. Photograph courtesy Zhu Liang Yang, Kunming Institute of Botany

So the next time you see a mushroom on the side of the road, let it be—it’s doing good for us and the environment.

Christine Dell’Amore, environment writer-editor for National Geographic News, is reporting from the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Jeju Island, South Korea.

Changing Planet

Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.