Australia is home to thousand of different species of fungi, only a fraction of which have been described by scientists.
But a citizen science project called Fungimap has spent three decades helping to uncover Australia’s fungal secrets – and has recently discovered another brand-new species.
“When Fungimap began 30 years ago, there was very little knowledge of which fungi exist where in Australia,” Sophie Green, coordinator of Fungimap, tells Cosmos.
“Fungimap began with target species which could be identified with certainty, and, with the help of citizen scientists, built up a database of more than 100,000 records from around the country which are now available on the Atlas of Living Australia.
“This enabled us to begin to see patterns in Australia’s fungi distribution. For example, we now know that while plant species tend to be regionally endemic, many fungal species are widespread and common, while others are very rare.
“This data was also vital in the addition of 36 Australian species to the IUCN Red List.”
Now, members of Fungimap photograph fungi and record their findings on the website and app iNaturalist, under a specific project which allows scientists to spot the right fungi.
“We now have a project on iNaturalist called ‘Fungimap Australia’ with more than 90,000 records which we encourage everyone to contribute to,” says Green.
While people often think of animals and plants in ecology research, Green says that fungi deserve greater recognition.
“Fungi are an essential part of our ecosystems and our world would look very different without them!” says Green.
“Some fungi (such as Cortinarius and Amanita) form mutually beneficial partnerships with plants, and over 90% of Australian plants require a fungal partner to provide them with essential nutrients as well as water from the soil.
“These fungi provide resistance to environmental stress and protect their host plants from disease. Other fungi (such as Gymnopilus and the ghost fungus Omphalotus nidiformis) play a critical role in nutrient recycling, breaking down organic matter such as wood and leaves and building healthy soil by recycling carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients.”
Fungimap helps to better understand Australian fungi, and help to protect it.
“Australia is mega-diverse in fungi, with more than 50,000 different species in an amazing array of different colours, shapes and textures,” says Green.
“However they are vastly under-studied, and only a fraction have been formally described and named. We know even less about their distribution and the health of their populations, and they are susceptible to many of the same threats facing plants and animals.
The group has recently wrapped a second edition of the Great Aussie Fungi Quest, a month-long event held in partnership with Questagame where people are encouraged to document and upload fungi they see.
“We received 13,309 fungi records of 1,131 different species contributed by 1,973 participants nationwide throughout the month,” says Green.
“The event uncovered a new species never before found in Australia, we received records of rarely-documented fungi, we received records from remote locations with few previous records, and the event helped confirm the rarity of our threatened species.”
As well as running the annual bioblitz and collating observations of threatened species, Fungimap offers grants for citizen sciences, and is currently publishing the second edition of their book, Fungi Down Under.
“It’s fantastic to see such a growing movement of people interested in fungi in Australia!” says Green.
“We encourage people to become members of Fungimap and able to access our webinars, research grants, and monthly enews.”