By Huili Li, Jiayu Guo, Lei Ye, Heng Gui, Kevin David Hyde, Jianchu Xu & Peter Edward Mortimer
Mushrooms play several important roles in natural environments. They can break down organic matter and recycle them back into nature as carbon and nitrogen. They can parasitize plants and animals by taking nutrients and selfishly using them to grow. Or, they can work together with other hosts, trading nitrogen and phosphorous for carbohydrates. These three roles have different effects on energy flows in ecosystems and are vital in maintaining a healthy, balanced environment.
Mushrooms also contribute significantly to human well-being. Many rural communities practice foraging for edible or medicinal wild mushrooms, comprising a source of substantial income, and wild mushroom trade has increased considerably in the last few decades. Mushrooms are also important components of household nutrition in developed and developing countries alike.
Given the value of mushrooms to natural systems and humans, we wanted to learn more about why some mushroom species only grow in certain places. What were the main factors responsible for their distribution? If we could better understand this, it would shine a light on energy flows between living things in ecosystems.
To explore this idea, we established study sites in three climatic regions (temperate, subtropical and tropical) in Yunnan Province, China. At each site, we also looked at five different kinds of forests found across each of the three regions.
Our researchers were stationed across all the study sites for two consecutive rainy seasons, making weekly wild mushroom collections. When making collections, we also documented the trees growing around them. In total, we found 561 mushroom species and 125 tree species.
Statistical analysis revealed that mushroom communities were largely determined by the most common tree community in the area. The number of different mushrooms growing in an area was closely connected to elevation, location and steepness. Here, ‘location’ includes many other factors, like rainfall, temperature, humidity and light. Human activity was associated with decreased mushroom diversity. These disturbances likely come from mushroom foragers trampling on soils and other greenery.
These findings will be particularly useful for developing targeted forest management and sustainable approaches to wild mushroom harvesting. Factors relating to understory management, overharvesting and the ever-rising demand for edible and medicinal mushrooms all require immediate attention if we are to continue utilizing mushrooms as a forest resource. We can apply this new knowledge to better protect and encourage the growth of mushroom species that may be threatened or in short supply, some of which fetch a high price at the market. Though only a two-year study, mushroom communities across all three regions were predictable based on tree communities. This suggests that this new information will be a helpful tool in the future for predicting the makeup of mushroom communities throughout the world.
This is a plain language summary for the paper of Li et al. published in the Journal of Vegetation Science (https://doi.org/10.1111/jvs.13001). The post was prepared by Austin Smith, Huili Li & Peter Mortimer.