Could the underground world of fungi help Australia's ecological recovery?
Author: Jennifer McMillan
There’s an underground world we know little about; the weird and wonderful world of fungi. Ecologists are only beginning to learn how fire affects fungi and how they might help in ecosystem recovery following fires.
The common mushroom is an example of a fungus. When you look at a mushroom growing out of the ground you are looking at just a small part of the organism - often 90% or more of the fungus is actually underground.
One group called arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi form symbiotic relationships with most of the world’s land plants. The plants and fungi rely on each other to grow and thrive, and different species of fungi support their plant partners in different ways. Some are better at providing nutrients, while others are more helpful with defending plants from disease and herbivores. Many fungal species can’t survive without a plant host, and plants rely on the fungi for nutrients too. AM fungi can influence seedling establishment, plant growth, defence against herbivores, and competition between different plant species.
After a fire, the responses of plants and fungi are intertwined; the recovery of one is dependent on the other. Changes in the number and types of fungal species can strongly determine how well plants recover and can influence the whole ecosystem after a fire.
Fungi living near the soil surface are particularly susceptible to fire, often killed by high soil temperatures as the fire passes over. Fungi further below the surface may provide the source for recovery but when the fire removes vegetation above-ground then the nutrients that plants produce cannot be delivered to fungi below-ground.
Putting fungi back into fire-affected environments could ensure more rapid recovery of native vegetation, including the survival of endangered plant species threatened by the fires. Research from last year showed that reintroducing AM fungal communities to degraded and disturbed landscapes can increase plant diversity by around 70%, encourage the recovery of native plants, and suppress invasive weeds.
There is so much to learn about this weird and wonderful underground world. It’s heartening to consider the interconnectedness of all things in community networks and how different types of organisms work together to benefit each other. A humbling reminder at this difficult time; we are all in this together.
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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.