Conserving British waxcap fungi
A Defra-funded project at Kew is working to find out how many waxcap species there are in Britain, and to improve methods for their identification. The results of this work should help conservationists to prioritise those species and sites which are most in need of further protection.
18 Nov 2011
Blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe conica), a common species, is easily recognised by its bright red, orange and yellow fruit bodies that naturally blacken with age as if charred, but are there really several closely-related species? (Image: © Derek Schafer, Buckinghamshire, UK).
What are waxcaps?
Waxcaps are fungi classified in the genus Hygrocybe. Many are highly colourful and their fruit bodies, especially the relatively thick gills under the cap, often have a waxy texture, hence the common name for the group. It is their great variation in colour and form that makes them notoriously difficult to identify.
This Defra-funded project should help us to understand more about the various waxcap species and their secret underground lives.Martyn Ainsworth, project team member
Waxcaps are of considerable conservation concern across Europe due to the loss of their habitat of unimproved or semi-improved grassland (poor grassland with short turf and receiving little or no fertiliser). These ‘waxcap grasslands’ have a unique mix of fungi which in the UK includes, amongst other threatened species, over 50 species of waxcaps. Such sites require regular grazing or mowing (with removal of clippings) but are vulnerable to intensive farming methods, particularly nitrogen enrichment. If subjected to high nitrogen inputs or ploughing, the waxcap communities are slow to re-establish and it may be decades before they return to their former diversity.
In Europe, the number of waxcap species fruiting on a particular site is sometimes used as a measure of its conservation value. In the UK, for example, if there are 18 waxcap species at a site it qualifies for consideration as a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This underlines the need for a robust and reliable method for defining waxcap species and checking their identification when necessary. The Kew project is designed to provide the means to do just that.
What Kew is doing
In late 2010, Kew received funding from Defra to investigate whether selected DNA sequences of waxcaps could be used to distinguish between the different British species. Distinctive DNA sequences are already in use as ‘barcodes’ to recognise different species of fungi and Kew aims to apply this technology to improve the definition and identification of waxcap species in Britain. This should help to remove some of the uncertainty surrounding current identification methods and species descriptions which rely on studies of fruit body form and colour which can be rather variable.
Once it is known how many British species there are and how to tell them apart work can start to discover where each species is found. This will clarify the distribution of each species, its habitat requirements and highlight those that are in most need of conservation management. This work will also provide a reference library of ‘barcode’ sequences that could be used to check the identification of critical specimens, for example those that represent waxcap diversity in sites under consideration for possible SSSI designation. Reliable identification of waxcaps could therefore lead to greater protection of waxcap habitat and help to halt the loss of these ancient grasslands about whose ecosystems we know so little.
What Kew is finding
Initial studies suggest that there are many more species than were previously thought. Some species names in current use, such as the blackening waxcap (see photo above), are likely to cover up to six or seven independent, but closely-related, species. These might have different distributions, ecological preferences and conservation requirements. It is hoped that the new DNA-defined species can be linked with visible characteristics of the various fruit bodies in the field or under the microscope, so as to allow traditional identification methods.
The project, in collaboration with Aberystwyth University, is also looking beneath the surface of the grassland to study what waxcaps are feeding on within the soil. It is not currently clear whether waxcaps associate in some way with living plant roots, possibly forming mycorrhizal relationships. This is where a bridge between plant and fungus benefits both partners by facilitating an exchange of nutrients.
Pink 'ballerina' waxcap (Hygrocybe calyptriformis)
A key aspect of the work is liaison and coordination between individual field mycologists and local fungal recording groups across the UK. There have been a number of waxcap recording schemes in the past and there is continuing general interest in waxcaps as fungal conservation icons.
One of the best known and most easily recognised is the pink waxcap (Hygrocybe calyptriformis) which perhaps should be rebranded ‘the ballerina’, a more descriptive name highlighting its delicate and slender pink flaring fruit body. Project team member Dr Martyn Ainsworth, who is part-funded by Natural England, thinks its popularity should be built upon. “This is truly a flagship fungus, a waxcap surely worthy of a place in Madame Tussauds, with most of its known European population residing in Britain for which we have a special responsibility. This Defra-funded project should help us to understand more about the various waxcap species and their secret underground lives”.
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