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The biodiverse Fungi kingdom contains species that play a crucial role in global ecosystems. In this article, we explore the direct interactions between wildlife and fungi to see how their relationships can be symbiotic and sometimes be antagonistic. We will also explore how fungi and mycelium networks play a crucial role and benefits all life, including wildlife. World Wildlife Day is coming soon, here are some of the things you can think about while celebrating it!
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FOOD & DIGESTION
Perhaps the most basic of these is Fungi’s role as a food source. Microbes, anthropods, nematodes, and mammals all rely on fungi as a food source. What is often lesser known is that fungi play an important role in digestion for plant-eating animals. Herbivores such as sheep, cows, moose, etc. do not have the ability to digest the cellulose in their plant based diets and rely on symbiotic bacteria in their stomach, which have the enzymes to digest the cellulose. However, other herbivores do not carry microorganisms in their gut and consume mycelium from decomposing plant materials, which contain the microorganisms and bacteria needed to break down the otherwise indigestable cellulose.
Plants are the recipients of water and nutrient uptake through the mycelium network. Mycelium creates balance between the plants, sending nutrients along the mycelium network across a wide system. In return, plants supply fungi with the metabolic benefit of carbon needed for photosynthesis. Mycelial cords and rhizomorphs act as organs for bulk transport of carbon and nutrients into nutrient-free environments. Fungi balance the energy flux in the soil and create channels for the detrital food web.
Along the forest floor, you’ll often find lichen side by side with fungi. Lichen are not single organisms, but are rather composite organisms that are formed from algae or cyanobacteria living among the filaments. Fungi use the carbon and energy in the form of carbohydrates provided from the lichen, while the lichen gain minerals from the fungi and are protected from dryness and excessive light because they are encased in the fungi’s mycelium.
Fungi have developed symbiotic relationships with numerous species of insects. Arthropods (jointed, legged invertebrates, such as insects) depend on the fungus for protection from predators and pathogens, while the fungus obtains nutrients and a way to disseminate spores into new environments. Basidiomycota fungi by example covers and protects colonies of scale insects while scale insects send a flow of nutrients from the parasitized plant back to the fungus. Central and South American leaf-cutting are referred to as fungi farmers. The ants cut and pile disks of leaves, cultivating fungi in the disk piles, which will provide enzymes the ants need to break down cellulose in their diets. The insects deliver a steady supply of leaves to the fungi they are cultivating and prey on competing fungi, removing the competition. Similarly, mound building termites do not contain the protozoan symbiont in their gut that allows them to digest wood. Unlike the termites we are more familiar with, they do not eat wood. They eat fungus that has been cultivated from the wood they gather as nutrients to feed the fungi.
SOIL & DECOMPOSITION
Fungi contribute to the nutrients in soil as they recycle carbon, minerals, and nutrients making the soil richer and sharing the nutrients with other plant life. Fungi are agents of potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus, typically produced during the decomposition of wood and other organic matter. Hyphae, spores, mycelial cords, ectomycorrhizal root tips, and sclerotia can be used by the soil fauna and fungivore fauna as food resources.
Relationship between fungi, plants, and animals are not always mutualistic.
SPORE TRANSPORT MUTUALISM
Fungi also take advantage of the dispersion of spores through the mobility of animals often offering the animal a sweet substance to consume.
While the fungi kingdom makes our planet habitable through the essential functions it performs, over the last 100 years we have seen an increasing number of disease-causing fungi that negatively affect plants, animals, and humans. Environmental change to the naturally formed systems, as well as the increased long distance dispersal of fungi species through trade are part of the problem.
Generally speaking, fungi are under-recognized when a human is first introduced to a fungi pathogen. Fungi pathogens effect 1 billion people per year and serious fungal infections kill over 1.5 million people annually. Controlling fungal infections is challenging because it is not as well understood as other diseases. Fungal pathogens and diseases make up only about 5% of all infectious disease research.
Emerging infectious diseases are increasingly being recognized as a threat to world food security and destroy approximately one-third of all crops each year (enough food to feed 600 million people). Late blight in the nineteenth century led to starvation and economic ruin in the English government during the Irish potato famine and Dutch elm and chestnut blight caused the degradation of forests. These negative outcomes are clear and measurable
A wide range of fungal infections are also causing population declines in bats, frogs, soft corals, bees, crayfish, tilapia, and more.
In summary, Fungi offer incredible value and resources to other organisms, but they also create challenges and can have a profound impact on global health. There has never been a more important time for researching and understanding the interactions between fungi and other living organisms. Spread the word about World Wildlife Day this year, raising awareness and growing the connection of nature and humanity closer than ever.