I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of biodiversity, because I’m in the process of writing a research proposal that has at its core the preservation of fungal diversity. This is important—we no more want to drive a fungus out of existence than we want to destroy a large mammal. But how do we explain and describe why we should be concerned about a fungus we can’t even see?
Some fungus we CAN see…or is this just a tree wearing camouflage?
It’s easy for us to focus on the importance of protecting large, easily visible species. Think of the really cool animals of the world. Now imagine that one day you have children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren who grow up in a world where there are no elephants. No tigers. No humpback whales. No polar bears except maybe that one in a zoo that won’t breed with that other one in a different zoo. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine that we might be on the verge of killing off several of our remaining megafaunal species, yet it’s a reality. And it’s sobering. One poignant example is the northern white rhino–only one male of this species remains alive.
Now imagine a world without a particular fungus that breaks down fallen leaves in the soils of New Zealand but lives nowhere else on Earth. What will the world look like without it? Yep, as far as we can imagine, the world will look exactly the same as it does now. The horizon of the African savanna won’t be missing any benevolent matriarchal giants the way it will be if we drive the last elephants to extinction. So what do we care about a fungus?
The answer is that we should care a lot. A lot of fungi are endemic, which means they only live in a particular home region and are found nowhere else in the world. If they die off, they’re gone forever. Specific species may have particular combinations of metabolic functions that no other species has, so their particular ecological role can’t be duplicated. And while ecosystems do shift and change all the time, each species in an ecosystem is interdependent with the other species in the same system, no less so in the case of microbes than in the case of mammalian predators and prey.
If we accept as a fact the notion that a fungus can be just as crucial to the world as a rhino, even if the thought of losing the fungus isn’t the same kind of gut punch as the thought of losing the rhino, the next step is to say, “What can we do about it?”
My best answer to that question is that we can learn as much as possible about the species in question, including their ecological roles and their evolutionary history. We need to know what they do, and we need to know how they took on those roles if we’re going to understand how they fit into the global array of microbial activity.