Researchers identify endangered fungi and warn of the need for conservation policies

10/11/2021 17:33

A fungus that transforms insects into zombies in the Itajaí Valley and a lichen that is only found between the dunes of a beach in Imbituba are some, of the at least, 21 new species of Brazilian fungi and lichens that will be included in the Red List of Threatened Species from the International Union Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the world’s leading inventories for the conservation status of animals, fungi and plants. The action is the result of a workshop organized by the MIND.Funga research group, linked to the Mycology Laboratory (Micolab) of Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), in partnership with the IUCN Commission for the Survival of Fungal Species. The meetings held throughout September and October brought together, in addition to the MIND.Funga and Micolab teams, 18 researchers from nine states of five regions in the country. Until the end of the year, the group follow the process of the evaluation of another 30 proposals for including species on the Red List.

The first Brazilian workshop on the evaluation of fungal species for the IUCN Global Red List, in addition to training Brazilian human resources to classify the species in the categories of threat and the application of the IUCN criteria, aimed to engage researchers in the theme of conservation. The initial meetings aimed at the qualification of participants for elaborating the documentation needed. Subsequently, the proposals elaborated by the group were evaluated by two IUCN accredited evaluators: Chicago Botanical Garden Chief Scientist Gregory M. Mueller and Eastern Washington University professor Jessica Allen.


Rickiella edulis is a saprotrophic species (absorbs nutrients from decaying organic matter) that occurs in the Atlantic Forest, Argentina and Paraguay. It is considered endangered by IUCN criteria. Photo: Gerardo Robledo

The 21 species evaluated are distributed in two phyla  (Ascomycota and Basidiomycota) and eight orders, and the majority is endangered to some degree. There are four Critically endangered (Extremely high risk of extinction in the wild); three in Endangered (Very high risk of extinction in the wild); nine Vulnerable (High risk of extinction in the wild); four Near threatened (low risk category, but with species close to be classified or likely to be included in one of the threatened categories in the near future); and one in the “Data Deficient” category (adequate data on its distribution and /or abundance is lacking to make a direct or indirect assessment of its risk of extinction).


The latter case is of Ophiocordyceps ainictos, a fungus that attacks and parasitizes larvae, probably of butterflies or moths, and controls their behavior, transforming them into true zombies. It is believed to be endemic to the region of Vale do Itajaí . “It is an extremely rare species that has only been found twice in 120 years, being so rare and mysterious that it was not even possible to determine its degree of threat, remaining in the ‘Data Deficient’ category, which indicates that it should be a focus of studies so that its biology and distribution can be better understood, thus complementing a better understanding of how threatened she is, inform professor Elisandro Ricardo Drechsler dos Santos and postdoctoral Diogo Henrique Costa Rezendeboth researchers from MIND.Funga and coordinators of the workshop.

Another endemic specie of Santa Catarina is Cladonia dunensis,  lichen found only in a strip between the dunes of Praia de Itapirubá, in Imbituba. Due to this extremely restricted distribution, and precisely in an area highly targeted by tourism and real estate speculation, it was assessed as critically threatened with extinction. That is, if nothing is done, there is a high chance of disappearing in the coming decades.

Four of the species already evaluated will appear in the next IUCN online release, which will be divulged in December; the others will be published during the next year. On workshop websiteit is possible to check all of them, as well as those that are still being analyzed. Other species that occur in Brazilian territory and have been already published on the global red list can be accessed on the MIND.Funga website.

Lichen Cladonia dunensis is found only in a strip between the dunes of Praia de Itapirubá, in Imbituba. Photo: Emerson Gumboski

Conservation of fungi and lichens

Fomitiporia nubicola is a wood-degrading species that, until now, has only been found in the Itajaí Valley and in the São Joaquim National Park, but it may also be found in the Southeast region of Brazil. Endangered, it is considered vulnerable by IUCN criteria. Photo: G. Alves-Silva

The results of the workshop call attention to the need to implement, in the country, policies for the conservation of funga – a term that designates species of fungi in a given region, in the same way that flora and fauna refer to plants and animals. “We all left the workshop with the understanding that something bigger needs to be done so that fungi are actually considered in the national scenario of biodiversity conservation”, comment the coordinators.

Fungi are essential for life on our planet. Even if we don’t always notice, they are an important part of our daily lives. The production of medicines and food (in addition to mushrooms, they are also present in the manufacture of cheeses, breads, wines and beers, among others) are just a few examples. Fungi are involved in key processes in natural ecosystems and allow that life as we know exists.

“However, more than 90% of fungal species are unknown to science, and we know that many of them might be endangered. Therefore, we are running an imminent risk of losing species of great ecological and economic importance without even knowing them. This scenario can be mitigated with the investment of resources for the recognition of this unknown biodiversity, as well as of those species that are threatened to be extinct, accompanied by policies that consider the fungi in studies of environmental impact, plans of national action and as indicators priorities of areas for conservation”, point out Drechsler-Santos and Costa-Rezende.

Aegis luteocontexta is another wood-degrading species considered rare and vulnerable. It occurs in the Atlantic Forest and potentially in the Amazon, in addition to Guyana and Costa Rica. Photo:: Felipe Bittencourt

Despite this, there is none type of policy for conservation of fungi in Brazil – they are not even mentioned in conservation laws or plans. There is also no red list for funga in the country – there are official lists only for flora and fauna. “It is urgent not only the need to train mycologists to assess the conservation status of species, but also to disseminate among academics and population that fungi are under threat, and that there is no public policy to defend them, as this is the only way for fungi to gain visibility on the national conservation agenda”, emphasize the workshop coordinators.

Assessing species and recognizing them as threatened with extinction is just the first step that must be taken. A major achievement, the researchers point out, would be the recognition, by the Ministry of the Environment, of these fungal species that have already been evaluated and published by the IUCN. “There are many needs for fungi to be truly recognized in a national conservation agenda, for this fungi need to be recognized in a public policy that involves all the society, institutions and the government itself, through the Ministry of the Environment, to fungi be incorporated into the legal aspects of Brazilian conservation”, reinforce Drechsler-Santos and Costa-Rezende.

Wrightoporia araucariae, so far, has only been seen growing on dead araucaria trunks – and only five times in the southern region of the country. Potentially follows the geographic distribution of the tree. It is critically endangered. Photo: M.A. Reck


In addition to studies about fungal communities, MIND.Funga is dedicated to extension and scientific education actions, such as the production of a children’s bookAlso noteworthy are the Citizen Science projects , in which the residents of the surroundings of the Conservation Units join efforts with researchers to increase the recognition of native species. The group is supported by the Support for Scientific and Technological Research Foundation of Santa Catarina State (Fapesc), National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and  Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes).

Camila Raposo/Jornalista da Agecom/UFSC

Translation by Edilene de Souza Leite