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For years, fungi were an understudied subset of botany, with mycologists relegated to the proverbial corners of the research world. It wasn’t until the 1960s that fungi were recognized as being their own kingdom of life. But what about extinct fungi? If we haven’t identified all the species that exist, how can we know what existed before our time? Now, researchers have realized just how important fungi are to the survival of forests.
Mycorrhizal fungi, for instance, create a symbiotic relationship with plants, linking them together in vast networks. It is estimated that 90% of plants depend on these fungi.
With less than 10% of fungi currently identified, we are likely only at the beginning of truly understanding the role of fungi in our ecosystem.
Historically, fungi have been understudied. As a result, it’s difficult to assess the health of fungi. To put things in perspective, it was relatively recently that scientists discovered fungi are actually closer in cell structure to animals than plants. When it comes to how much we simply don’t know, consider this stat: the IUCN Red List, a compilation of endangered species, has assessed 68,054 animals and 25,452 plants but only 56 fungi species.
Fungi, like plants and animals, are prone to the effects of climate change. Among researchers, there is concern that environmental changes will have an impact on fungi populations. But it’s not all doom and gloom, as fungi have been found to benefit plants stressed by climate change.
The unfortunate fact is that we simply aren’t doing enough for fungi conservation. The Environmental Protection Act outlines protections for plants and animals but doesn’t specifically protect fungi. The lack of protection has been criticized, with researchers citing the importance of fungi to major ecosystems.
What we do know is that some fungi are endangered, while others are at risk. Thanks to scientific research, we know that more work is needed when it comes to fungi conservation.
What fungi conservation will look like in the future
As fungi become better understood, the need for conservation, and further research, has been recognized. There is a growing interest in fungi protection. Just look at the International Society for Fungal Conservation, established in 2010, which now has members in 60 countries.
Meanwhile, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has set up a fungal conservation committee with a mandate to raise awareness of the need for fungi conservation efforts and to encourage action.
While there is still much work to be done, fungi are now receiving more attention when it comes to matters of conservation. The world needs to do everything it can to make sure there are no more types of extinct fungi until we fully understand just how vital they are to life itself!