Skip to main content
You are here
Facebook icon
Pinterest icon
Twitter icon

Waxtongue – UK fungi of conservation concern - COMPLETED

The 'Waxtongue' project has been funded to carry out phylogenetic research into the genus Hygrocybe ('waxcaps') and the Geoglossaceae ('earthtongues'), two groups of major conservation concern in the UK. The objective is to make definition and identification of the species more robust, and to discover cryptic species that may have different conservation needs.


Martyn Ainsworth (Hygrocybe) and Paul Cannon (Theumenidium)
Image on left: Hygrocybe punicea from Devon, England. (Photo: Martyn Ainsworth) Image on right: Thuemenidium atropurpureum from Milovaig on the isle of Skye, Scotland. (Photo: Paul Cannon)

Fungi are hardly represented in conservation strategy in most parts of the world. In Britain, this situation is starting to change, with a now very active network of local recording groups that gather data on the distribution and associations of a wide range of fungal species. This has led to establishment of a revised list of UK priority BAP species and the first set of fungal guidelines to assist in UK SSSI selection (involving the so-called 'waxcap grassland' ecosystems). Many are likely to be recognized in time as having special conservation needs, but currently the focus is on a quite small number of species and genera. Two of the most prominent of these are the waxcaps (Hygrocybe species), small brightly coloured mushrooms, and the earthtongues (Geoglossaceae) which form small black club-like fruit bodies. Both groups are largely restricted to so-called 'unimproved' grassland sites, which have not been treated with nitrogen fertilizer to increase their grazing value, and are highly vulnerable as even a single fertilization event appears to result in multiple species losses. As far as we can tell, the impact is very long-lasting, with sites known to have been 'improved' thirty or more years ago still lacking many of these key fungal species.

Identification of fungi from both groups is problematic, with diagnostic features difficult to assess especially once samples have been harvested and dried. With support from the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) we are carrying out taxonomic and phylogenetic research to establish whether the species that are currently recognized using field-based and microscopic characters are single evolutionary units, or contain multiple cryptic species that may have different distributions, ecological requirements and conservation needs.

Our work to date has focused on the ITS region of the rDNA gene, soon to be formally recognized as the univerisal DNA barcode for fungi, and we are finding that the majority of morphologically defined species contain more than one independent phylogenetic unit. Our challenge is then to correlate these cryptic species with morphological traits that may allow their recognition without expensive lab equipment. We are also investigating the nutritional status of waxcap fungi; it appears that they are biotrophic organisms (obtaining their energy from living tissues of other organisms) but we don’t know the species (or even the major organism group) on which they depend. Clearly this information will be of great value when establishing conservation strategies.

Project started 2011

Project partners and collaborators

Gareth Griffith (University of Aberystwyth)
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)
British Mycological Society

Project funders


Annex material

  • Project workshop, Braemar, September 2011
  • Project workshop, Snowdonia, October 2011 (in partnership with BMS)