6 Oct 2018

State of the World’s Fungi: A Perspective from Wales

Bruce Langridge

I’ve just heard about the concept of fungi dark taxa.

Across the world, around 144,000 different fungi species have been formally named. This might sound a lot but fungi scientists have long thought there might be between 2.2 and 3.8 million species, a staggering number that exceeds the number of plant species by more than 6 times.

But having just been to the inaugural State of the World’s Fungi Symposium at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, I’ve heard there could be over 100 million species of fungi – fungi dark taxa. That’s such an unbelievably large amount that it raises serious questions about what is a species, how species description protocols might have to be changed and even how living things are named: try thinking up 100 million binomial names. Bear in mind too that around 2,000 new species are being named per year – at this rate it will take thousands of years to describe and name everything.

All this is controversial of course and has been provoked by the study of fungi DNA which is revealing microscopic differences between otherwise visually identical species. It may also be down to the fact that fungi may have first evolved 1 billion years ago, hundreds of millions of years before plants evolved. Originally aquatic, fungi are now thought to have moved onto dry land 700 million years ago and may well have been essential for enabling the successful transition of plants onto land. The rest of the wonderful Symposium dealt with fungi conservation, fungal relationships with plants, research into lichens, fungi in ecosystems, fungi networks and the commercial opportunities fungi can offer the world, from truffle growing to industrial enzymes and manufacturing.

There were also short talks and presentations about fungi related projects from around the world and Wales was proudly represented. Cardiff University PhD students talked about fungi in sapwood; David Harries presented the work of Pembrokeshire Fungus Recording Network on using DNA sequences in field mycology whilst Garden volunteer Nigel Stringer introduced the new Red Data List of Smut and Allied Fungi of Wales. Professor Lynne Body also gave one of the main presentation talks about the role of fungi in decomposition and nutrient cycling, her main area of research at Cardiff University.

I was also shown Kew’s Fungarium, the largest collection of dried fungi in the world.

As part of the continuing development of a fungi culture here at the Garden, we’re now looking at creating our own Fungarium, to hold collections of fungi linked to future research we’re involved in and to keep a physical record of the fungi that fruit in this Garden, to help us to monitor our own mycological dark taxa in the decades to come. If we were to have started this year, we’d certainly have collected samples of Boletus fungi – this was the best season we’ve ever seen for these large, fascinatingly coloured mycorrhizal fungi. They were first spotted on a Carmarthenshire Fungus Group walk around the Garden in August: the group meets in the Garden on the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 10am. If you’d like to join us, just let me know on bruce.langridge@gardenofwales.org.uk or keep an eye on the Group’s Facebook page.

This blog was published to celebrate UK Fungus Day on Sunday 7th October. The Garden’s own Fungus Day will be held a week later on October 14th 2018.