Why fungi matter… possibly more than you think

Toadstools, brackets, puffballs, earthballs, earthstars… they come in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes and colours, but their importance to the natural world often goes unheralded. Tricia Moxey sets the record straight.

Porcelain fungus is associated with dead branches on beech (pic John Skerry)

As nature’s recyclers, fungi are everywhere, largely invisible but busy decomposing organic materials so they can grow and reproduce.
Feeding by secreting enzymes from their fine penetrating threads or hyphae, assorted fungi break down the complex molecules found in fallen leaves, branches, standing dead wood, fur and dung. Some are parasitic on living plants or animals.
Assorted fungi provide food for a varied range of animals.
Many reproduce in the autumn, forming beautiful and colourful fruiting bodies of varied forms: toadstools, brackets, puffballs, earthballs, earthstars, earthtongues and spindles. Some of these can be confidently identified by these fruiting bodies, even from a photograph, but other species require close examination by those with skills in microscopy and laboratory analysis.
Certain species are more commonly noticed than others, for example the fly agaric and sulphur tuft. Some even glow in the dark such as the honey fungus – possibly the origin of many ghostly tales!  
Fungi play a crucial role in the functioning of all Kent’s ecosystems as their combined activities underpin and shape the nature of habitats occupied by other organisms.
Vast numbers of fungal species are present in the upper portion of a healthy soil, many unidentified, where their actions release nutrients for reuse by plants or to feed innumerable soil bacteria. Their hyphae help to retain moisture and reduce erosion by binding the mineral particles together. They ensure that soils store carbon derived from dead organic matter and maintain the ideal conditions for a thriving underground microbiome. 

The historical county list of fungi noted the names of some 3,300 species. This should come as no surprise as Kent has the largest amount of ancient woodland in England, as well as other plant-rich habitats, where fungal species outnumber green plants. This means that there are many locations in the county with special assemblages of fungi, some common, some less so. The richer areas are the mixed coniferous and broadleaved woodlands, historic parks and fragments of unimproved chalk grasslands, but an unexpected fungal fruiting body can suddenly appear in a garden, churchyard or roadside verge, too.
The association of certain fungi with specific trees has been known for some years, but recent research shows that 80 per cent of trees and other plants share and trade food via the symbiotic or mycorrhizal fungal networks that connect their roots.
The term the ‘wood wide web’ has now become widely accepted as it describes the vital interconnectivity between trees and other plants to supply synthesised food materials via the associated fungi in exchange for water and minerals.
Acute pressures from pollution and built development threaten many sensitive habitats with the potential loss of species, including fungi. The methodology for biodiversity offsetting has yet to take any fungal associations into account, a serious omission.
Information about the role of fungi in underpinning all ecological systems and the need for their protection must be highlighted so that this can be better understood and integrated into policy decisions, especially around the development of new woodlands, changing farming practices and urban design for green spaces, where such plantings also require the support of mycorrhizal fungi.  
Although largely hidden from view, fungi also have a significant role to play in the proposed natural mitigation strategies to deal with climate change… and in these times few things matter more than that.  

Friday, December 31, 2021

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