Mapping the World’s Fungi

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Fungi can be important conduits for nutrients in soils. They have even been called the ‘circulatory system’ of the Earth because of the nutrients they move around, particularly in areas with often poor soils.

Most of fungi can be found underground and some species are among the largest living beings on Earth. In fact, single organisms have been estimated to be up to 10 square kilometers. Fungi can also form networks with other fungi, allowing vast networks to spread around large areas.

Additionally, researchers have stated fungi can be important in the carbon cycle, helping mitigate climate change. Now, researchers want to map fungi to study their importance in different ecosystem and the planet. 

One problem with fungi is because much of their structures are underground, few people think to protect them as they are largely out of site. Even common species, which we often see in the form of mushrooms, may be much larger underground.

Nevertheless, given their benefits to plants and the Earth’s climate, there is a strong need to better understand their importance and protect fungi around the world.

High-resolution mycelium network.
High-resolution mycelium network. Photo: © Loreto Oyarte Galvez, SPUN.earth, used with permission.

Scientists estimate there might be literally millions or trillions of miles of fungi networks spanning the globe, with almost all of it unknown.

These networks are under threat from agriculture, urbanization, water scarcity, and even climate change. Scientists from Netherlands, Canada, the US, France, Germany, and the UK have created a collaborative effort, called the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), which will aim to map and protect large areas of fungi.[1]

Mapping Mycorrhizal Fungi

The initial aim for scientists is to map mycorrhizal fungi, which play an important nutrient and climate mitigation role.

Samples from different locations are being collected, with recent work focusing on Patagonia. Scientists believe that networks of such fungi might store about eight times as much carbon than ecosystems which do not have such networks.

Fungi also form symbiotic relationships with trees, helping them to benefit while enriching the soil and performing an important role in carbon capturing. Nevertheless, as fungi are not protected as forests are, they are also uniquely under more threat from development activities and a lack of knowledge on where they are could hurt protection efforts.[2]

Existing Fungi GIS Data is Incomplete

There are some existing data from samples and a map has been created from where major networks do occur that have been studied. However, the full structure and networks even from where samples come from are not nearly complete.

This effort is a start in helping to determine where these large networks form and enable scientists to more closely monitor and understand the role fungi play in both climate mitigation and soil nutrient replenishment.

There is also a website that that shows existing data and information about the effort to map fungi.[3]

Screenshot from the GlobalFungi Database web site. Acquired 8-December-2021.
Screenshot from the GlobalFungi Database web site. Acquired 8-December-2021.

Mapping Critical Hotspots for Fungi

The global fungi mapping effort by SPUN is being financed by Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire financing climate research.

From the overall results, it is clear parts of the Earth form critical hotspots for fungi, with likely more areas to still be found. So far, important areas that scientists have identified include:  the Canadian tundra, the Mexican plateau high altitudes in South America, vast areas in Morocco, including the nearby Western Sahara, the Israeli Negev desert, Kazakhstan’s steppe regions, the grasslands and high plains of Tibet, and the vast Russian northern taiga forests.

View of part of the Needles in Canyonlands National Park.
Canyonlands National Park is known for its red sandy soil and shrub pinyon pines and junipers. A fragile biological-soil crust of cyanobacteria, lichens, mosses, fungi, and algae lives on the soil’s surface between plants. Photo: USGS, public domain.

Interestingly, many of these areas appear relatively lifeless on the surface or even have poor soils, but the work shows that a lot of important activity underground is occurring that is also critical for the Earth’s carbon capture and life cycles. 

The new effort in mapping fungi shows that everything that could be critical to the planet should be mapped and protected. Fungi are an example of organisms that play important roles in our Earth but are poorly understood relative to organisms that thrive on the surface.

While maps and mapping fungi will be critical, the next stage, which could prove more complex, is to protect vast underground regions to ensure fungi can continue to thrive and enable their important nutrient and carbon capturing capabilities to continue and thrive.

This will require cooperation between scientists and governments. Potentially, agreements on protecting underground biota will also need to be considered as part of climate mitigation efforts. 

References

[1]    A recent article about protecting and mapping fungi networks can be seen here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/nov/30/worlds-vast-networks-of-underground-fungi-to-be-mapped-for-first-time.

[2]    More on the mapping effort and networks that are important for ecosystems can be found here: https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/12/02/scientists-are-mapping-the-world-s-fungal-networks-for-the-first-time-here-s-how.

[3]    The dataset and effort information can be found here:  https://globalfungi.com/.  The author corrected data is found here:  Větrovský, T.; Morais, D.; Kohout, P.; Lepinay, C.; Algora, C.; Awokunle Hollá, S.; Bahnmann, B.D.; Bílohnědá, K.; Brabcová, V.; D’Alò, F.; et al. Author Correction: GlobalFungi, a Global Database of Fungal Occurrences from High-Throughput-Sequencing Metabarcoding Studies. Sci Data 20207, 308, doi:10.1038/s41597-020-00647-3.

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