Researchers have mapped fungi globally, and this shows where fungal diversity is greatest and where climate change is most likely to harm fungi. One researcher says that the biodiversity of animals and plants will be affected if fungi die out.
Fungi are omnipresent in soil, on trees and on animals.
For the first time, researchers have mapped the world’s soil fungi, and this shows the locations of many unique fungi and where climate change most severely threatens fungi, requiring protection.
Mapping the distribution patterns and vulnerability of fungi is important in assessing how climate change will affect the world’s plant and animal species, since fungi often live symbiotically with other species.
“We know little about how global climate change will affect fungi and how this will affect other organisms. But since fungi are important for the well-being of other organisms, we need greater insight into the global distribution of fungi and where we should be concerned about them,” explains a researcher involved in the study, Leho Tedersoo, Professor, University of Tartu, Estonia.
The research has been published in Global Change Biology.
100 researchers collected soil samples
Fungi have a very important ecological role and are essential for degrading dead biological material in soil. They are also often symbiotic with trees and plants, supplying nutrients, and often defend plants and trees against harmful organisms.
The new study therefore aimed to map their global distribution, with more than 100 researchers collecting soil samples around the world and sending them for analysis at the University of Tartu in Estonia.
The researchers then identified the composition of soil fungi at the species level. This enabled them to map the global distribution of fungi and identify whether some areas had especially high species diversity or high prevalence of unique fungi species.
Surprisingly few unique fungi on islands
Some places have many unique fungi species, including Amazonia, Yucatan, western and central Africa, Sri Lanka and New Caledonia, but islands in general do not. This was surprising, since especially tropical islands often host unique animal and plant species that often evolve in new directions because of long-term isolation.
“We were surprised that the island ecosystems did not increase the unique species of fungi. But perhaps this is because fungal spores are airborne, which means they can reach suitable habitats, including islands,” says Leho Tedersoo.
Location of the most vulnerable fungi
The researchers also identified where fungi are most vulnerable to climate change by using various climate models to predict the future climate and compared this with the distribution of fungi.
The most vulnerable regions in the future will be those with higher temperatures and more drought: the densely populated and drier tropical and subtropical regions, especially India and the sub-Saharan Sudanian savanna.
“Climate change threatens fungi and can lead to a sudden loss of biodiversity, not only for the fungi but also for animals and plants, because they are all closely connected through carbon and nutrient cycling processes,” explains Leho Tedersoo.
Fungi, animals and plants need better protection
The researchers also addressed the need for more measures to protect fungi and other soil organisms globally.
The fungal conservation areas with highest priority are vulnerable regions with great fungal biodiversity. This includes alpine regions, which provide many microhabitats for fungal species – the same regions that are already in focus for protecting animals and plants.
Unfortunately, the prospects are not good for protecting animals, plants and fungi in many of these regions, which are typically in low-income countries with high population density.
“But protecting plants and animals also protects fungi. The focus should be on protecting habitats, and we must be better at doing this,” says Leho Tedersoo.
Available for other researchers
Leho Tedersoo explains that although the study aimed to map the distribution of fungi and unique species and to identify global threats to the biodiversity of fungi, the work is not finished yet.
The next step is to use the mapping to obtain insight into the distribution and ecology of fungi in the future.
“All our data and mapping are available to other researchers, and our research will support the entire field in relation to the global distribution patterns of fungi,” concludes Leho Tedersoo.