So the last post was a gallery of the fruiting bodies (sex organs) of a bunch of different fungi, aka, mushrooms. That’s the part we see and think of as the organism, the main event.
Not necessarily so! What’s below ground or in the crevices of rotting wood is the real life of fungi. Moreover, what’s interesting is that fungi sometimes play absolutely essential roles in relationships with other pieces of an ecological puzzle.
Just after the last post I came across Underground Connection: Fungi and Pines in Peril, by Dr. Cathy Cripps. She has been studying Whitebark pine in the high mountains of the Pacific Northwest and Rockies and the things that have been causing their decline.
For one thing, the pines have a curious way of dispersing their seeds. They depend on Clark’s nutcrackers to extract their seeds and carry them off to caches for winter and then forget where they left them. The new trees sprout from the forgotten seeds.
Whitebark pines live in tough high-mountain soil. Re-enter the fungi. Cripps says:
“In a twist of nature, certain mycorrhizal fungi insert themselves between tree roots and soil to form a protective barrier around each root tip. In addition, the fungi boost the uptake of nitrogen into roots by extending their long thin bodies into the soil where they forage for scarce nutrients. The microscopic threads that comprise their bodies are called hyphae — or, when in mass, mycelium — and they act as conduits, moving nutrients and water from soil into roots. These fungi can also protect tree roots from heavy metals, tiny invertebrate grazers, and root pathogens hiding in the soil. The fungi themselves are able to eke out a living on photosynthetic scraps, sugars that leak from fine roots.”
According to Cripps this kind of plant/fungi relationship is extremely common. She estimates 80% of Earth’s plants have mycorrhizal fungi without which many could not survive, especially forest plants. Our own state tree, the Douglas fir, really makes use of fungi:
“Douglas-fir alone associates with more than 2,000 different species of ectomycorrhizal fungi, and some are only found with this species. A single tree in a forest can host any number of ectomycorrhizal fungi simultaneously, with each providing its own unique set of benefits. Often, there is a succession of fungi found on a tree over its lifetime. Certain ectomycorrhizal fungi are important in a tree’s establishment as a seedling, and other fungi come in later to provide benefits in mature forest situations.”
Okay, that’s what blows my mind. We can walk the refuge and notice the big things like trees, plants, and animals and think they are the whole show. When we’re out with a group of kids and don’t see birds it can be like, oh, there’s nothing going on out here. But there beneath our feet are organisms like fungi and micro-organisms that are hard at work living their lives making ecosystems go round and round. We need to pause and know that vast systems of living things beneath our threshold of attention are playing their part too.