Flora, fauna, and … funga?

By Jonathan Moens
Chicken mushrooms in the forest Getty Images

I n 1999, Giuliana Furci developed a profound interest in fungi. They were everywhere, and the 20-year-old took particular joy in the multiformity of mushrooms: small and button-shaped; tall and umbrella-like; bulging, with crimson red caps topped with white flakes. But Furci also quickly realized that these fungi went largely ignored in Chile, where there were few guidebooks and an almost total lack of policies and resources to legally protect them from over-harvesting, land exploitation, and deforestation.

Determined to correct this, Furci wrote a field guide for Chilean fungi and set up the Fungi Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to fungi conservation for which she is the executive director. In 2010, she took an even bigger step: Allied with other environmental nonprofits, Furci put forward a proposal for the Chilean government to systematically assess how large new developments such as housing, dams, and highways affect fungi. In 2012, the motion passed and Chile became the first country in the world to protect fungi by law.

Chile is unique in its legal commitment to these spore-producing organisms. As a taxonomic group, fungi are both ubiquitous and diverse, including molds, yeast, mushrooms, and a variety of other organisms. They are also largely neglected in global conservation efforts. Of the estimated 2.2 to 3.8 million species of fungi on Earth, approximately 450 have been assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature for inclusion on its Red List of Threatened Species, a large-scale effort to catalog the conservation status of species across the globe. Groups like mammals, birds, and amphibians have been completely or almost completely assessed, while fungi account for less than a percent of all assessments to date.

Policymakers and biodiversity institutions agree that fungi are fundamental to rich and sustainable ecosystems, but few institutions have taken direct steps to explicitly include these organisms in their policy frameworks. One reason: People tend to prefer large charismatic creatures, says Axel Hochkirch, a professor of biodiversity conservation at the University of Trier in Germany. Whales, rhinos, and elephants capture the collective imagination and foster a sense of empathy, he says, driving interest, money, and resources into fighting for their preservation. Fungi have historically been associated with disease, death, and decay, especially in the Western world, says Gregory Mueller, chief scientist and vice president of science at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Fungi face an additional challenge. After decades of being classified as plants, in the late 1960s biologists recognized that they needed their own separate kingdom. But this recognition has been slow to seep into policy. Popularized by Carl Linnaeus in the 18th century, the term "flora and fauna" no longer includes fungi, but mycologists argue that the term lives on in environmental laws, international biodiversity conventions, and treaties, allowing fungi to be overlooked in policy frameworks and making it challenging for conservationists to obtain legal environmental protections for this diverse and ecologically important kingdom.

In response, a small team of fungal experts and legal scholars have banded together to try and tilt public and legal discourse in favor of fungal conservation. The team aims to add another "F" — funga — to upcoming high-impact reports, declarations, conventions, and treaties that would otherwise focus on "flora and fauna." One of their chief goals is to get fungi explicitly included in the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity, a United Nations multilateral agreement and one of the most influential conservation initiatives in the world, whose next meeting is now scheduled to take place in Kunming, China in October.

"Government, people, institutions still think of biodiversity in terms of 'flora and fauna,'" says David Minter, president of the European Mycological Association. "And that, of course, absolutely excludes fungi — it's so pervasive."

Until relatively recently, fungi could belong to only one of two scientific categories: plants or animals. Given that fungi are non-motile organisms often anchored to the soil, they were scientifically classified as plants. But they also differ from plants in significant ways — notably fungi reproduce via spores rather than with flowers and seeds and lack basic structures that plants have, including stamens and pistils. Because of this, for decades fungi were generally considered more primitive and were referred to as "lower" plants.

In 1969, the ecologist Robert Whittaker published a paper challenging the binary classification model, proposing, instead, a five-part classification system that included fungi as its own kingdom. (Later models have included even more kingdoms.) In Whittaker's system, fungi's lack of chlorophyll, its general inability to photosynthesize, and its distinct cell wall composition — made from the same substance as insect exoskeletons — made them a unique kingdom of life, more similar to animals than plants.

Fungi establish deeply symbiotic relationships with trees and other plants through intricate underground networks of thread-like filamentous structures, which improve access to water and nutrients for the plants in exchange for carbohydrates. Fungi also decompose leaves, rocks, and other organic materials, turning them into soil, which create the foundation for other organisms to thrive on.

"Their symbiotic nature is very important, and they are the organisms that actually create ecosystems. Without fungi, you just have separate components," says Furci. As a result, omitting fungi from conservation initiatives has had dire consequences on the world's ecosystems, experts say. And despite a lack of data, scientists know enough to say that many species of fungi face similar environmental risks as plants and animals, given their susceptibility to climate change, land exploitation, pollution, and deforestation.

Overharvesting of prized mushrooms is also a problem. For example, in Northern Sicily, the white ferula — a girthy, eggshell-colored mushroom noted for its delicious flavor — was the first fungi placed on the IUCN Red List. Found in an area spanning no more than 39 square miles and frequently picked by mushroom hunters, the white ferula is currently teetering on the brink of extinction, with no formal legislation to protect it in the wild.

Large institutions shaping conservation efforts around the world are aware that fungi play an indispensable ecological role. "There is no question that fungi are fundamental to biodiversity," the Convention on Biological Diversity said in an emailed response provided by information officer Johan Hedlund. "Fungi are vital for ecosystem functioning, aiding in the decomposition and nutrient cycling within our biosphere," they added. The response acknowledged that the agreement "has no direct policy or strategy in place for the conservation of fungi," but said the convention's efforts to preserve habitat indirectly protect fungal species.

The Global Soil Partnership, an initiative launched by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2011 to improve sustainability of soils around the world, also considers fungi essential for building healthy and biodiverse ecosystems but has "no specific action for conservation of fungi," says Rosa Cuevas, a soil scientist with the partnership. Rather, the team is working on a broader, all-encompassing initiative to improve below-ground sustainability.

Similarly, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral environmental agreement that took effect in 1975, has no fungi on its lists of protected species, said spokesperson Francisco Pérez. In 2002, a resolution was passed by parties to the conventions stating that fungi are covered by it and can indeed be included on the lists of protected species. Despite a discussion of caterpillar fungus during a workshop on the trade in medicinal plants at the 2012 CITES meeting, however, none of the 183 member states have come forward with a proposal so far. This is likely because countries lack knowledge about which fungi are endangered in a way that is pertinent to international trade, says Ronald Orenstein, a zoologist, lawyer, and consultant for Humane Society International, whom he represents as an observer at CITES meetings.

Even the U.S. Endangered Species Act, among the strongest laws for protecting biodiversity passed by any nation, does not explicitly mention fungi. However, this omission likely arose out of a lack of knowledge and understanding about fungi at the time of writing the legislation in 1973, says James Lendemer, a lichenologist at the New York Botanical Garden. He notes that at least two lichens — composite organisms that form from a stable symbiotic fusion of fungi with algae, cyanobacteria, or both — are currently protected by the act. "Clearly, it was intended to apply to all organisms," he says, or at the very least all macroscopic lifeforms.

In some cases, the reason for this institutional neglect boils down to a simple fact: Policymakers worry that explicitly including fungi in conventions and reports could set a dangerous precedent for other similarly neglected biological kingdoms, such as protists, archaea, and bacteria. In carving out species-specific conservation policies, initiatives "run the risk of conflicting and interfering with one another, resulting in stagnation and no progress on anything," the Convention on Biological Diversity said in their written response to questions.

Similarly, formally recognizing fungi within the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species would open up the possibility for other amendments within the treaty that could influence far more controversial trade-related regulations, including ivory, says Orenstein. "You enter this years-long, very difficult, very — in my opinion — dangerous process of opening the whole treaty up for amendment," he says. "And I think most people don't want to do that."

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The past decade has witnessed a fungal explosion in popular culture, including best-selling books like Merlin Sheldrake's "Entangled Life" ("an ebullient and ambitious exploration of a subject that surrounds us," wrote a reviewer for The New York Times last year); the rise of fungi-based products like faux leather; and the establishment of fungal committees and associations across the world.

Emboldened by this momentum, Furci and Mueller have joined with legal experts to push for fungi-related language in important biodiversity reports, documents, treaties, and conventions. Adding a third F, they hope, will help build the necessary political leverage for a legal roadmap that would directly protect fungi in the long run. Recently, members of the team published a letter in Science, calling on all countries attending the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting to explicitly mention fungi — both large above-ground species and elusive, often microscopic, below-ground species — in their target goals. (Last week, the IUCN and Re:wild, a nonprofit formerly known as Global Wildlife Conservation, announced a commitment "to incorporate fungi in conservation strategies with rare and endangered plants and animals.")

"When the language is there, someone — meaning policymakers or domestic level advocates, campaigners — will invoke it in litigation, in legislation," says César Rodríguez Garavito, faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global justice at New York University, who is leading the legal aspects of the team's strategy.

But some are skeptical that a species-specific approach to fungal conservation is the most beneficial strategy. Policies that focus on one species in isolation can sometimes be myopic and self-defeating, says Anders Dahlberg, a professor of mycology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. In Sweden, for instance, legislation bans the picking of at least five species of mushrooms, but there are other, far more serious threats to fungi populations that are still authorized, like clearing trees and land exploitation. In his view, species-specific laws are meaningless without protection for the broader habitats in which these species grow.

In the case of Chile, Dahlberg says that while it may work for some countries, it's not clear whether the recent law is a desirable model for others to emulate. A misguided approach could fail to recognize that the greatest threats to fungal species lie at the habitat level — including deforestation, loss of plant biodiversity, and climate change — and thereby require a habitat-level approach, he says.

Others argue that even if fungi did get more recognition, there would still be another systemic problem to be addressed. The field of mycology is starved for resources — with few experts, volunteers, trained assessors, and little funding to actually carry out the kind of large-scale assessments and monitoring necessary to enact meaningful change, says Mueller. This dearth of resources also results in gaps of knowledge that make it hard to devise strategies to protect fungi in the first place, says Tim Hirsch, deputy director at the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, a database documenting biodiversity around the world. "It's a bit of a chicken and egg," he says. "To drive the evidence there needs to be some push from those who are using the evidence to get more information together."

Fungi are also notoriously elusive: They mostly lay underground, sprout unpredictably, and their intricately tangled networks can make them difficult to individuate as single specimens. This means that while people's understanding of fungi has significantly improved over the past decade, research on fungi can often be long, exploratory, and, by consequence, expensive, says Mueller.

Despite the challenges, Mueller sees the present moment as a turning point in fungi history. Scientists and the general public alike are increasingly pushing for stronger environmental protections, and new technologies, such as crowd-sourcing applications and inexpensive genetic sequencing tools, could make fungal research cheaper, more accessible, and more rigorous. These are positive developments, says Mueller, for an "independent, mega-diverse branch of life that plays all these incredibly important roles and needs to be treated as such."

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UPDATE: A previous version of this piece imprecisely referred to Johan Hedlund as a spokesperson for the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. While he is an information officer working in a U.N. media office, and provided a statement prepared by unnamed representatives of the Convention, he does not speak for the convention himself.

Jonathan Moens is a freelance journalist based in Rome. His work has appeared in Yale Environment 360, Inside Climate News, and Spectrum.


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