Fire and fungi

The bushfire crisis this summer in Australia has had an immense impact on many unique areas of ecological significance. We’ve all seen harrowing images of our much-loved fauna suffering as a result of these unprecedented fires, with as many as 800 million animals estimated to have been killed in the fires since October. News of the successful fight to save the Wollemi Pine was welcome but 272 threatened plant species are believed to be impacted and 47 taxa have lost more than 80% of their distribution to fire.

But what happens to fungi in these fires? Many of Australia’s unique macrofungi grow in association with plant hosts, many of which will have been burnt. Others are a source of food to native fauna and habitat for invertebrates. Some fungi actually only produce fruiting bodies in response to fire. Pyronema omphalodes responds to fire by firstly sending out a mycelium network often looking like orange fuzz. These fungal threads help hold the soil and ash together to help prevent erosion.

Other pyrophilous (fire-loving) ascomycetes produce discs. Another saprotrophic ascomycete that is a ‘discomycete’ is Anthracobia muelleri. We now know that many post-fire disc fungi are mycorrhizal including Geopyxis carbonaria and Peziza tenacella. Its spores spread across the ash bed so they are in the best place to partner with the new plant seedlings.

Pyronema omphalodes is commonly seen after fire (Malcom McKinty).

Other fungi are likely to be permanently lost if their habitat and substrate are ever subjected to fire, let alone a blaze of such intensity. Burnt logs and stags are important habitat for the next generations of wood-rotting fungi and these are important sources of food for many invertebrates, that in turn are food for our surviving birds and other invertebrate-eating animals. As we’re seeing more instances of wet rainforests burning in a hotter, drier climate, the likelihood of losing these fungi is increasingly likely.

Despite this, you might notice that fungi are absent from the list of protected species affected by the bushfires. As they are not (yet!) included in the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, our unique and valuable fungi are unfortunately not considered as part of the recovery effort, despite the essential roles they play in our forest ecosystems and the recent inclusion of 35 species found in Australia on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Fungi Red List.

We know that a coordinated effort to restore the ecosystems affected by this bushfire season is required – land managers, conservationists, ecologists, mycologists and botanists will all have a role to play, alongside an army of dedicated volunteers. But fungi are also an essential part of the web of life in our bush, even as we still know so little about the estimated 250,000 species living with us on this vast continent.

Help us put fungi on the map by supporting our work promoting the ecological importance of fungi. If you are in a fire-affected area and you see a fungus please submit it to our iNaturalist project Fungimap Australia.