19 February 2018

Discovering fungal diversity in Colombia

As part of a scientific collaboration between RBG Kew and Colombia, a team of mycologists are in the field working together on an exciting challenge – to identify the total diversity of fungi in Boyacá

Pepijn Kooij

By Dr Pepijn Kooij

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Fungi, as in many places, are not well studied in Colombia, and it is still unclear how many and which species are present in the country. For example, in Boyacá, which is roughly one tenth of the size of the United Kingdom, 79 species of macrofungi (mushrooms) and just under 400 species of lichens have been recorded to date. To put this in context; in the UK there are more than 15,000 species of fungi described.

What do we mean by ‘total fungal diversity’, and how do we measure it?

When we talk about measuring total fungal diversity, we mean identifying every single fungal species there is in the studied area. 

But not only do we look at the number of different species, we also estimate the abundance of the species – how many individuals there are – as an important factor in measuring diversity. Considering the number of species there could potentially be, this sounds like an almost impossible job. However, we have a robust system. We collect fungi from different groups, and once the samples arrive safely at Kew, we study them using microscopy and DNA analyses to identify the species.

or two weeks in 2017, ten mycologists travelled to Boyacá to collect fungi at six different locations: one dry forest (Acacia and cacti), two Colombian oak forests (Quercus humboldtii), one pine/Weinmannia forest, one sub-páramo and one páramo (high altitude montane vegetation above the treeline but below the permanent snowline in the Neotropics).

You can see our adventures in this video

We split into four groups to collect as many fungal species as possible: macrofungi (ie. mushrooms), lichens, plant/tree root samples (for mycorrhizal fungi), and plant/tree leaf samples (for endophytes – fungi that live in plants without causing harmful effects). 

The analyses of the collections are still ongoing, but our preliminary data show that we collected approximately:

  • 400 lichens, comprising at least 100 different species, but probably more
  • 200 marcofungi, comprising ca. 150 different species
  • 100 leaf samples to be analysed for endophytic fungi
  • 100 root samples to be analysed for mycorrhizal fungi

Key findings

  • A. muscaria, the fly agaric, is a common mushroom native to conifer and deciduous woodlands throughout boreal and temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Clathrus archeri, also known as octopus fungus, is indigenous to Australia and New Zealand, and an introduced species in Europe, North America and Asia.
  • The leaf-shaped lichen Dermatocarpon sp, commonly called stippleback lichen, is only the third record for Colombia, and the first record for Boyacá.

Back to Boyacá!

With just two weeks to collect in a handful of different habitats, we doubled the number of species of macrofungi known for Boyacá. 

So, we are now in full swing preparing for our return trip (23 February – 9 March 2018), where we will visit a tropical rainforest and another yet unexplored páramo, in the hope to increase these numbers even more. 

You can follow our upcoming adventures on twitter:
#KewColombiaBio#BoyacáFungi@PepijnKooij@EsterGaya1@Rowena_paints@KewMycology