They say that, if you’re on the hunt for species as yet undiscovered by science, the best place to look isn’t the Amazon rainforest or the open ocean, but your own backyard.
If you want proof of that maxim, look no further than the Cairngorms in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. There, two species of fungi have just been found that were previously unheard of within the UK – plus another that was unknown to science before now.
“The coming together of researchers, conservationists and the local community has uncovered some wild and wonderful species,” said Keilidh Ewan, a project manager at the conservation charity Plantlife, in a statement.
The project was led by conservation charity Plantlife and the James Hutton Institute, a research organization based in nearby Aberdeen.
They tasked dozens of volunteer hillwalkers with collecting soil samples at various altitudes from 55 of the 58 Munros – that’s the term for mountains in Scotland that are over 3,000 feet (914 meters) high – across the Cairngorm National Park last summer.
DNA was extracted from the soil and sequenced by scientists at the James Hutton Institute, resulting in more than 17,000 records of 2,748 species of fungus – and with numbers like that, it’s almost impressive they only found three surprise results.
“Fungi are crucially important to the functioning of our alpine ecosystems, but because they are mostly hidden below ground, and because alpine ecosystems are remote and difficult to access, we know very little about the distribution and diversity of fungi in this iconic habitat,” said Andrea Britton, a Plant Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute.
“The data from this survey will add significantly to our knowledge of this vital group and can be used to start identifying which habitats and locations are particularly important for conservation of fungal diversity.”
What makes the discovery even more extraordinary is that the two known fungal species were previously thought to live as far away as possible from each other. One, Amanita groenlandica, is an Arctic species, originally found in Greenland and only growing as far South as Scandinavia. The other is Acrodontium Antarcticum, and as the name suggests, it was first recorded in Antarctica – on literally the opposite side of the planet from A. groenlandica.
That they both ended up in the Cairngorms is a testament to the unique local climate of the Park. Thanks to its elevation and distance from the sea, it’s an exceptionally cold and snowy part of the UK – even for Scotland – making it perfect for arctic-alpine plants and fungi.
Among the hundreds of other discoveries was a species known as violet coral fungus – one of the UK’s rarest grassland fungi – which was found on two mountains in the Park. And, of course, the previously unknown species: it’s a member of the Squamanita family of fungi, an enigmatic and rare genus that caused a stir in mycological circles when it was discovered to parasite off other species for its survival.
Despite the range and impact of the fungal finds, experts warn that climate change has already reduced the extent of arctic-alpine species’ habitats in the area. As the planet heats up, and harsh living conditions become increasingly difficult to navigate, these are the organisms that will be at a higher risk of extinction – and as the foundation of the food chain, fungal life is crucial for providing the nutrients needed for them to survive.
That makes the discovery of three new fungi incredibly exciting. “There are more living organisms in just one teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet, and soil biodiversity has a hugely important role to play in the functioning of ecosystems,” explained Ewan.
“[This study] has created evidence-based foundations against which the effects of climate and environmental change can be monitored going forward,” she said. “This is helping us to understand the threats that this fragile habitat is facing and, ultimately, the more we understand, the better we can protect these much-loved places for the future.”