Despite their immense importance to humanity and to ecology, fungi are largely overlooked in conservation and in programs to protect or improve biodiversity in Australia and often missed altogether in discussion of biodiversity.
The Federal Government website for threatened species defines biodiversity as: the variety of plants, animals, micro-organisms and ecosystems that constitute our living environment.
Federal and State Government State of the Environment (SEO) reports only included fungi in their definition of biodiversity from 2016. Here is what the current SOE report says of our knowledge of fungi:
Ongoing improvement of our knowledge of the distribution, diversity and taxonomy of invertebrates … and fungi is critical for management
The majority of Australia’s invertebrates and fungi are yet to be described – many have small, restricted distributions and specific ecological requirements that make them sensitive to ecological change. ….
The 2016 SOE has a very good section on fungi provided by Fungimap.
Only a handful of fungal species has any protection under environmental laws at state level and no fungi are listed under the Federal Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act.
New South Wales—9 species and 1 ecological community of fungi are listed under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.
Victoria—3 fungi are listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988. Nine fungi are included in the 2014 Advisory List of Rare or Threatened Plants:
Hypocreopsis amplectens Tea-tree Fingers vulnerable
Neuropogon acromelanus – Black-beard Lichen endangered
Xanthoparmelia suberadicata – Foliose Lichen endangered
Victorian Dept Environment & Primary Industries advisory listed
Chlorovibrissea bicolor – Two-tone Vibrissea rare
Dermocybe canaria – Canary Dermocybe rare
Dermocybe cramesina – Orange Dermocybe rare
Morchella esculenta – Common Morel rare
Nyctalis mirabilis – Beech Nyctalis (lichen) rare
Xanthoparmelia victoriana – Foliose Lichen endangered
Hypocreopsis amplectens – Tea-tree Fingers is the only fungus listed under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988. As yet, no action plan for this species’ survival and recovery has been developed. Recent surveys by Fungimap and the local community suggest that in the last decade it has disappeared from two of the three known locations on the Mornington Peninsula and Coastal Gippsland in Victoria.
See more here on our project on Tea-Tree Fingers.
Western Australia—39 fungi (including 24 lichens) are listed as Priority Species 1, 2 or 3 in the Threatened and Priority Flora List under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950.
Tasmania—23 fungi (all lichens) are listed under the Threatened Species Protection Act 1995.
No fungi is listed under state or territory threatened species legislation in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Queensland or South Australia.
- One fungus that occurs in Australia (Claustula fischeri – Bunyip Egg) is listed on the IUCN Global Red List. Claustula fischeri is a rare fungus that has only been documented at a few locations in Tasmania and New Zealand. It is a very unusual fungus consisting of a white egg-shaped fruit-body initially covered by a purplish outer layer. Unusually for a stinkhorn, the spore mass is devoid of smell. For more details on its IUCN red-listing here.
This lack of protection can be explained by a number of factors:
- The crucial roles played by fungi in the environment are barely known outside the small number of mycologists, fungi enthusiasts and well-informed environment groups.
- The Australasian Mycological Society compiles information on fungi in tertiary courses. There are no undergraduate courses focussed on mycology in Australia and courses in ecology and biology largely ignore fungi and its beneficial role, thus perpetuating this ignorance and severely limiting the number of scientists with an understanding of mycology.
- By far the largest investment in fungal research in recent decades has been into species that are pests of agricultural and horticultural monocultures and human or animal pathogens. See here for example, the Melbourne University’s School of Biosciences Mycology Laboratory summary of its focus on the problems caused by fungi.
- Conservation programs tend to focus on species recovery and rarely recognise the interrelationships of plants, animals and fungi.
- Fungi are often included in the definition of plants in State conservation legislation.
The Australian Mycological Society further explains:
Unfortunately, formal recognition of rare and endangered fungi has been historically difficult to obtain in Australasia. There appears to be a number of reasons for this.
- First, fungi are often invisible for the majority of the year until environmental conditions are briefly suited to fruiting body formation and even then encounters with different species may only occur by chance.
- Second, because of their cryptic nature, understanding biological aspects that are necessary for their listing as rare species (such as population size) is a major challenge for mycologists.
- And third, there are few qualified mycologists currently working in Australasia who can provide information about the identity, biology and ecology of any fungal species, let alone rare ones.
The Federal Australian Government website page on Biodiversity provides a Conservation overview of Australian non-marine lichens, bryophytes, algae and fungi.
A few fungi are well known to lay people although the overall importance of the group is generally not recognised outside scientific circles.
Although of undoubted importance for their very widespread symbiotic relationships with higher plants, the most striking significance of fungi is in the decomposition of dead plant material. Whereas some ecosystems might be able to function in the absence of lichens, bryophytes and even algae, and certainly without angiosperms, it is difficult to conceive of any bar the simplest ecosystem surviving in the complete absence of fungi. Especially in forests, a large part of the nutrient flux is mediated by fungi. The healthy functioning of forest fungi is hence of paramount importance to all the forests of the world, including those in Australia.
As a source of antibiotics, edible foods, yeasts and, conversely, of plant and animal pathogens, the economic significance of fungi is very great and is still scarcely tapped. … the proportion of fungal species that have been chemically investigated is minuscule.
It outlines the difficulties of assigning meaningful threat categories to fungi as:
- insufficient information and qualified personnel
- the (poor) status of taxonomy
- the existing classification schemes were designed for vascular plants
- the nature of the organisms themselves (The problem with fungi is particularly acute since …. The visible fungus is only the fruiting body which may or may not be produced in any given year; most of the fungus is an invisible, effectively unmeasurable mycelium underground.)
Its four recommendations were:
- publication of Fungi of Australia and other identification guides
- publication of educational posters,
- publication of TV documentaries and games
- professional publicity to raise public awareness