Cyathus olla – Bird’s Nest Fungi
Life on earth has evolved with the crucial participation of fungi; creating soil, regulating hydrological cycles and establishing highly beneficial relationships with flora and fauna.
Scientists have understood since the 1970s that fungi belong in a separate and highly specialised biological Kingdom with far more species than plants.
Plants produce sugars but fungi are nature’s major recyclers of organic material and highly valuable in maintaining healthy ecosystem functioning. Without them, life on earth would be unsustainable, fallen timber would render forests impenetrable, the landscape would be contoured by mountains of herbivore faeces and rivers and ponds would be clogged with plant debris.
Fungal hyphae, which ramify throughout soils are important for good soil structure, stable carbon sequestration, water retention and nutrient availability.
Lichens capture carbon and contribute nitrogen to ecosystems, are used as an indicator of air quality, also providing habitat for micro-fauna.
And much more…..
Plants and animals depend on fungi
90% of terrestrial plants have a mycorrhizal (symbiotic) relationship with one or more species of fungus. Fungi draw on the sugars produced by plant photosynthesis and, in return, convert organic material to nutrients that are often highly specialised to suit particular plant needs.
The seeds of our native orchids cannot germinate without the aid of a fungal partner. Endophytes (fungi that grow within plant tissues) can also assist plants to avoid disease and grazing by animals. See here for more on this.
Fungi are food for both vertebrates and invertebrates. Our large numbers of native truffles are food for rare and endangered species such as Potoroos and Woylies, as well as for specialised insects.
We depend on them
Fungi are a very important source of unusual chemicals of great value in industry and medicine.
The yeasts used to make bread, beer and wine are fungi, and many pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics (notably penicillin), statins and anti-cancer drugs are derived from fungi.
We cultivate an increasing variety of fungi for consumption and they are good sources of vitamins, proteins fibre and other nutrients and low in calories.
We also threaten them
Fungi in natural environments are threatened by climate change, habitat destruction, invasives, pollution and over-exploitation, in the much the same way as animals and plants.
Synthetic chemicals in pesticide, herbicide, fertiliser and especially fungicides used in agriculture and forestry also damage fungi and soil health.