13.1 Ecosystem mycology

The significance of fungi in nature means that changes in the composition and functioning of fungi in a community can have sweeping effects on the diversity, health and productivity of our natural environment. Although it is species of fungi, bacteria, nematodes, and arthropods that typically dominate terrestrial ecosystems in terms of species richness, most conservation work is unfortunately concentrated on vertebrates and vascular plants. Yet there is evidence that land management practices can affect fungal diversity.

In most environments, the majority of the larger, showy and fleshy mushrooms that are readily seen, as well as truffles beneath the surface, are mycorrhizal. Obviously, diversity of mycorrhizal species will be influenced, if not determined, by plantings of their potential hosts. However, management practices can also affect the diversity of saprotrophic fungi; indeed in Northern Europe intensive management of forest is associated with decline in species diversity of wood-degrading saprotrophic fungi. This appears to result from management regimes that remove woody debris from managed forests. Diversity of such species is positively correlated with both the quality and quantity of woody debris left in a forest and coarse woody debris even promotes the abundance and diversity of truffles (Lindner Czederpiltz, Stanosz & Burdsall, 1999). It is counterproductive to allow this to occur as change in the diversity and abundance of wood-degrading fungi will adversely affect the recycling of key nutrients and the provision of ecological niches in the managed community. The result is that the influence extends beyond the plant communities to all those other organisms that interact with fungi, from insects and slugs that depend on fungi for food, to the vertebrates that eat the invertebrates. And, of course, it’s not just the commercial forests to which this applies. Amenity land (public garden and park land) is an increasingly important aspect of the urban environment which so many of us inhabit, but here, too, excessive tidiness can adversely affect the biodiversity and diminish the recreational value of the resource.

In Chapters 14 to 16 we will add detail to the brief descriptions given above of the ways that fungi contribute to the Earth’s ecosystems. In this Chapter we will concentrate attention on some saprotrophic activities to begin with, but our main topic will be the various associations between plants and fungi.

Updated December 17, 2016