State of the World's Plants and Fungi Symposium 2023 speaker abstracts

Find out more about the world-leading experts taking to the stage at this year's Symposium

A forest landscape has light shining through gaps in the canopy. Leaf litter covers the floor.

View speakers for each day of the 2023 SOTWPF Symposium

Day 1 - Wednesday 11 October

Day 2 - Thursday 12 October

Day 3 - Friday 13 October

Day 1 - Wednesday 11 October

Plant diversity of Indo-Australia: Understanding knowledge gaps from Thailand to New Guinea 

Utteridge, T.M.A. 

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK 

Stretching from southern Thailand to Papua New Guinea, the plant diversity of Indo-Australia is distributed across a complex island archipelago including Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Sulawesi and New Guinea. The Indo-Australian area can be broadly defined into three zones: Sundaland, Wallacea and Papuasia. The region has been famously divided by a loose tangle of biogeographical ‘lines’, including Wallace’s Line running along the eastern boundary of Sundaland, and Lydekker’s line along the western length of Papuasia. 

The region includes the megadiverse countries of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, several ‘Biodiversity Hotspots’ and the ‘High-Biodiversity Wilderness Area’ of New Guinea. Our understanding of the region’s plant diversity is hampered by an incomplete modern Flora, and no contemporary modern regional Floras, though several checklists have been recently completed. Collecting effort is patchy with shortfalls in our knowledge across the whole region. The plant diversity and knowledge gaps of the island of New Guinea are discussed in detail, together with a set of recommendations to address them in the future which will be applicable to global efforts. 

Unveiling hidden gems: Research and conservation priorities for endemic and undescribed Brazilian angiosperms 

Gomes-da-Silva, J.1, Nic Lughadha, E.2 & Forzza, R.C.1,3 

1 Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2 Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK, 3 Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade, Brazil 

Brazil is recognised for its megabiodiversity; conversely, the escalating deforestation has drawn criticism as it poses a grave threat to this natural heritage. Despite high rates of description of new angiosperm species, Brazil still harbours a portion of undiscovered flora, leaving many species and their unique attributes at risk of loss due to lack of knowledge. What would be the impact on conservation priorities if all undescribed species were known and the catalogue was complete? To explore this, we analysed spatial and taxonomic data on Brazilian angiosperms published between 1753–2020. We aimed to identify areas of endemism, taxonomic and geographic gaps, and to predict numbers of unknown species using statistical models. The key areas of endemism were found in the Atlantic Forest and Cerrado. Those in Atlantic Forest have partial coverage under the Brazilian national protected areas system, but endemism areas are less protected in Cerrado, falling short of Global Strategy for Plant Conservation targets. Despite Brazil's prominence in describing new species, some families with high discovery potential have seen a decline in species descriptions, likely influenced by funding challenges. We also found variation in the probability of species discovery among Brazilian phytogeographic domains, with Amazonia and Caatinga offering greatest opportunities for new species. We highlight the urgency of increasing resources for comprehensive scientific research to expedite catalogue completion. Without prompt action, coupling systematics initiatives which facilitate species discovery and conservation efforts, these unknown species could be lost, further exacerbating the biodiversity crisis. 

Colombian funga 

Vasco-Palacios, A.M.1,2, Motato-Vásquez, V.2,3,4 & Sanjuan, T.2,5 

1 Universidad de Antioquia, Colombia, 2 Asociación Colombiana de Micología (ASCOLMIC), Colombia, 3 Universidad del Valle, Colombia, 4 Calima, Fundación para la Investigación de la Biodiversidad y Conservación en el Trópico, Colombia, 5 Corporación Grupo Micologos Colombia, Colombia 

Colombia is recognised as a biodiverse country, holding 10% of the global diversity. However, it has reported less than 5% of the fungal species known worldwide. Currently, 7,241 species of fungi have been recorded but estimates of the existing species richness oscillate between 27,430 and 380,000 species. Studies using metagenomic approaches have shown the Amazonia as a hotspot for soil fungi, with an important level of endemism. 

There are substantial gaps in knowledge, not only because most of the country is unexplored in areas such as the Orinoquia, Caribe, Insular territories, the Amazon foothill, and the Amazon basin, but there are also taxonomic gaps. Major limitations in the country are the small number of mycologists and the lack of rigorous taxonomic studies and systematic inventories. Fungi are also in danger of extinction – the major causes of biodiversity loss in the country are the fragmentation, degradation or loss of habitat, overexploitation, invasive species, pollution and climate changes. 

Nowadays, the conservation status of only 22 species has been done. However, evaluating the conservation status is difficult or incomplete due to information gaps. To fully catalogue the diversity of the Colombian funga, a thorough assessment is needed, including systematic inventories in less known areas, molecular studies of taxa that may include morphologically cryptic species, and studies in ecological aspects of this funga. It is also necessary to enrich our national collections. Biological collections are a crucial source of information for developing a bio-economy model in Colombia, as a key element of long-term sustainability. 

Day 2 - Thursday 12 October

Strategic filling of knowledge gaps leads to effective policy development to protect plants in the megadiverse country South Africa 

Raimondo, D.1, von Staden, L.1, Ebrahim, I.1, Parbhoo, S.1, Mtshali, H.1 , Rebelo, A.1 & Treurnicht, M. 2 

1 South African National Biodiversity Institute, South Africa  

2 Botanical Society of South Africa, South Africa 

South Africa boasts exceptional species richness, with approximately 21,000 plant species, 60% of which are endemic, mostly concentrated in three globally recognised biodiversity hotspots. Continuous taxonomic effort over the past three centuries has led to our flora being well documented. For example, our richest hotspot, the Cape Floristic Region (9,000 species) is estimated to have less than 1% of the total flora not yet described – well below the predicted 15% for other hotspots. 

South Africa is fortunate in having had consistent investment in taxonomic research and plant inventorying efforts with dedicated funded taxonomic positions at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and university-based herbaria. Furthermore, there is significant annual investment in inventory projects in biodiversity gap areas. A comprehensive assessment of the threat status of our flora, initiated in 2002, indicated that we still lack information on abundance, distribution, ecology and threatening processes needed for accurate red listing. In response, SANBI and the Botanical Society of South Africa partnered to establish a dedicated citizen science initiative, the Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) programme, to train non-specialists to gather missing information on range-restricted endemic and threatened species. 

Volunteers, strategically recruited in areas of high plant endemism and threat, have over 20 years generated accurate spatial and population trend data for red list assessments. These inform area-based priorities in legislated spatial biodiversity plans, identify priority areas for protected area expansion and provide data to an online EIA screening tool to prevent loss of plant species during developments. 

Plant diversity darkspots for global collection priorities 

Ondo, I.1,2, Dhanjal-Adams, K.L.1, Pironon, S.1,2, Silvestro, D.3,4, Deklerck, V.1, Grace, O.M.1,5, Monro, A.K.1, Nicolson, N.1, Walker, B.1 & Antonelli, A.1,4,6 

1 Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK; 2 UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), UK; 3 University of Fribourg, Switzerland; 4 Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, Sweden; 5 Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK; 6 University of Oxford, UK 

Recent estimates indicate that more than 15% of the world’s vascular plant species remain scientifically unknown and many known species have no geographic records documenting their distribution. Identifying knowledge gaps and understanding their historical drivers is thus essential to guide the prioritisation of data collection and to inform conservation strategies at global and national scales. 

Using the World Checklist of Vascular Plants (WCVP) and a range of species- and human-related variables known to influence species discovery and detection, we modelled the time to species’ first description and geolocation to predict how many species were currently scientifically unknown and lacked geolocation. We investigated (mis-)matches between the 36 known biodiversity hotspots (i.e. areas with exceptional concentration of endemic and threatened species) and areas with most important gaps in taxonomic and geographic knowledge (i.e. plant diversity ‘darkspots’) and the importance of the socioeconomic context of countries when prioritising regions for future collection efforts. 

Our results identified 29 darkspots of plant diversity and suggest that (i) most of the currently unknown diversity occurs within biodiversity hotspots (except New Guinea), (ii) unknown and unmapped species have small and large distributions, respectively, and (iii) the utilitarian value of species accelerates their description and geolocation. Considering the socio-economic context of different regions largely reshuffles collection priorities, although a few areas are consistently identified as global priorities – the Philippines, Myanmar, Assam, Bangladesh, East Himalaya, Iran, Turkey, Colombia and Peru. 

Using metrics of diversity knowledge gaps provides valuable and complementary information to further develop and improve conservation actions. 

Illuminating the dark fungi 

Aime, M.C. 

Purdue University, USA 

Conservative estimates put the number of extant fungal species at 1.5 – 5.1 million, of which <10% have been described. One of the many questions that have been generated from these estimates is, where are the “missing”, or dark, fungi? The majority of fungal estimate data are based on studies of macrofungal species counts or DNA data from soils in temperate regions. Limited baseline data from un- and underexplored habitats and lineages not only hinder accurate species estimates but affect our ability to determine other factors such as the rate of fungal endemism, global distributional patterns, or where fungal biodiversity hotspots reside. 

Here we discuss the results of combined exploratory field research with traditional and modern tools (ranging from physiological profiling to comparative genomics) to document early-diverging lineages of Basidiomycota from tropical world regions. This has included, for example, the establishment of two long-term (20+ years) field studies in remote regions of the Guiana Shield and the Congo River Basin; development of tools for utilising herbarium specimens for phylogenomic studies and for working with fastidious microfungi; and providing the first available genomic resources for nine classes of fungi. 

Results of this work have improved understanding at all levels of fungal biodiversity including the discovery and description of new higher-level lineages; discovery of new niches and ecological roles; and identification of specific adaptive traits that appear to have driven success, in terms of species richness, of diverse fungal lineages. 

Finally, we have shown that the most widely used culture-dependent and culture-independent methods may fail to detect some fungal lineages, which will require development of novel approaches before illumination of global diversity in toto is achieved. 

Global shortfalls in threat assessments for endemic flora 

Gallagher, R.V.1, Allen, S.P.1, Govaerts, R.2, Rivers, M.C.3, Allen, A.P.4, Keith, D.A.5, Merow, C.6,, Maitner, B.7, Butt, N.8, Auld, T.D.5,9, Enquist, B.J.10,11, Eiserhardt, W.L.2,12, Wright, I.J.1, Mifsud, J.C.O.13, Espinosa-Ruiz, S.14, Possingham, H.8 & Adams, V.M.15 

1 Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University, Australia; 2 Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK; 3 Botanic Gardens Conservation International, UK; 4 Macquarie University, Australia; 5 University of New South Wales, Australia; 6 University of Connecticut, USA; 7 University at Buffalo, USA; 8 University of Queensland, Australia; 9 University of Wollongong, Australia; 10 University of Arizona,  USA; 11 Santa Fe Institute, USA; 12 Aarhus University, Denmark; 13 University of Sydney, Australia; 14 Wageningen University, Netherlands; 15 University of Tasmania, Australia 

The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation ambitiously called for an assessment of extinction risk for all recognised plant taxa by 2020. This target was not met in the short-term, yet the need for risk assessments has never been more urgent. Plants are rapidly going extinct and face dire threats such as climate change and permanent deforestation. 

Extinction risk assessments continue to provide the critical foundation to inform protection, management and recovery of plant species, the loss of which will have clear consequences for maintaining planetary systems and human well-being. In this talk, I will explore progress in the completion of extinction risk assessments for those plants which occur solely within the boundaries of a single country, or close country-equivalent, across the globe. 

These ‘endemic’ species can be protected through national legislation or policy actions that seek to conserve biodiversity. Our analyses show that 58% of all country-based endemic species examined have no conservation assessment (127,643 species). Countries’ progress toward the completion of threat assessments for endemic plants could not be confidently predicted by their objective wealth, level of land-use change, or the size of their endemic plant flora. Some of the world’s wealthiest nations, which also have relatively strong species protections, are failing to protect their unique flora by not systematically assessing risk. 

Through collaboration and partnership, the global plant science community can continue to correct this shortfall in risk assessment and halt extinctions. Illuminating patterns of national plant endemism can also engender awareness and delight, thereby reducing 'plant blindness' in global conservation. 

Drivers of extinction risks in Madagascar vascular flora 

Rakotoarinivo, M. 

University of Antananarivo, Madagascar 

With an estimated 60% of plant species in Madagascar being threatened, the risk of extinction is a serious problem. Most of these species inhabit forests or woodlands that are at risk of disappearing by 2070. Habitat loss and overexploitation are identified as major threats, but studies have shown the role of intrinsic factors and the effects of climate change in generating stochastic effects on the survival of some species. The extinction risk is particularly high for some useful plants such as legumes, succulents, orchids, baobabs and palms; their trade is controlled at the national or international level, but population decline and illegal harvesting affect even those within protected areas. Species could disappear before they are even described, such as in the case of Dalbergia, the rosewoods, where only 55 species are currently described even though there are no fewer than 87 species in Madagascar.  

With nearly 5,000 species currently assessed under the IUCN Red List criteria, Madagascar has made a significant effort to understand the extinction risk of its plant species, particularly the small endemic taxa that are unique to the island. There are around 140 monotypic genera in the Madagascar flora, most of which are threatened. Their extinction would represent a major loss not only for Madagascar but also for the planet as a whole. Plants that are unique in terms of evolutionary history, such as Takhtajania perrieri or the palms Voanioala gerardii and Tahina spectabilis deserve to be considered priorities for in situ conservation before they disappear. 

What do we know about extinction risk in fungi?  

Dahlberg, A. 

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden 

Due to the largely cryptic nature of fungi – fungal diversity, distributions and conservation status, as well as knowledge and estimations of extinction risks, may appear elusive. No fungi, including lichen, has yet been documented and classified as globally extinct. To date, merely 625 fungi have been Red List-assessed globally. However, these global assessments, together with more extensive national Red Lists in several countries, show that extinction risks in fungi largely can be inferred from the conservation status of their habitats. These fungal assessments document local and national extinctions and suggest declines and extinctions of fungi to approximate those for plants and animals. 

The underlying threat causes are essentially the same as for plants and animals, as threats that impact fungal hosts and their substrata also will have a substantial impact on fungi. Habitat loss and degradation, followed by climate change, invasive species and pollution, are the primary identified threats that negatively affect the distribution and population size of fungal species, eventually rendering them at risk of extinction. 

Extinctions starts locally and it is therefore vital to pay attention to, and to counteract, local and regional declines in fungal populations long before the situation has worsened to the global level. An important insight is that estimation and how to counter extinction risks may be estimated also for poorly-known fungi based on the prospects of their habitats together with the general knowledge of fungal population processes e.g. ability and propensity for dispersal, establishment and reproduction. 

Friday - 13 October

Mapping Asia plants for conservation and sustainable use 

Ma, K. 

Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China 

Biodiversity information is essential for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use. Asia is the largest region in the world, with complex geographical conditions and divergent climate types. This cultivates a complex and rich plant diversity. Compared to developed countries, the huge population pressure and the conservation status of nature in Asian countries form a strong contrast. We are running out of time to record and document what we have. 

While there are certain independent efforts that hold plant information, there are no mechanisms to harness them for mega-scale, inter-country planning of conservation strategies. The plant information available in Asia is still limited and scattered. 

With more and more Asia plant checklists, specimens and literature available online, a new project named Mapping Asia Plants (MAP) was initiated in 2015. The work divided Asia into six sub-regions including Southeast Asia, South Asia, Northeast Asia, North Asia, Central Asia and West Asia. The core task of MAP is both species check-listing and mapping. The data sources for the core task come from: 1) floras, plant species checklists and related papers; 2) plant distribution maps; 3) herbarium specimens, including photographs of specimens with reliable identification; 4) vegetation survey plots; 5) plant investigation data; 6) plant observation data including data published by citizen science; and 7) other digitised online datasets. To date, each sub-region has built vascular species checklist databases. 

New methods to predict biodiversity patterns and threats and to optimise conservation action 

Silvestro, D.1,2,3, Goria, S.4, Groom, B.5,6, Sterner, T.7 & Antonelli, A.2,8,9 

1 University of Fribourg, Switzerland, 2 Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, Sweden, 3 Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB), Switzerland, 4 Thymia Ltd, UK, 5 LEEP Institute, Exeter University, UK, 6 Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, UK, 7 University of Gothenburg, Sweden, 8 Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK, 9 University of Oxford, UK 

Throughout the long evolutionary history of life, species of all kingdoms have undergone staggering diversification and faced countless environmental changes and extinction events. Yet today, with over a million species threatened with extinction, biodiversity is facing unprecedented challenges, urging the need for conservation policies that maximise its protection and sustain its manifold contributions to people. 

Here we present a suite of new methods aimed to quantify biodiversity and help guiding conservation efforts using artificial intelligence (AI). Specifically, we develop deep learning models to estimate spatial patterns of species richness and showcase the use of machine learning models to evaluate the extinction risk across thousands of plant species, complementing the Red List compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

We will present a reinforcement learning framework to guide conservation and restoration efforts and to compare the outcomes of widely used conservation prioritisation metrics. Using a simulation of the 30x30 biodiversity commitment adopted within the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, we demonstrate that the use of different biodiversity metrics in conservation planning can result in drastically different outcomes. 

Within this simulated framework we find that AI-powered analyses of spatial patterns of biodiversity and threats significantly outperform alternative conservation planning approaches in reducing species extinction risks. Artificial intelligence holds great promise for improving our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics shaping biodiversity patterns and for optimising conservation efforts in a rapidly changing and resource-limited world. 

Accelerating our understanding of fungal diversity 

Boddy, L. 

Cardiff University, UK 

Approaching 153,000 species of fungi (including 97,000 Ascomycota and 52,000 Basidiomycota) have been named and described to date. But how many species are there actually on planet Earth? Since Hawksworth’s first estimate of 1.5 million in 1991, there have been numerous attempts to work out where unknown fungi might be so as to improve our estimates and to focus searches. Every plant and animal, for example, will have several fungi specifically associated with them, which we could consider as known unknowns. Based on this, estimates of numbers range between about 2.2 to 3.8 million. However, there will also be unknown unknowns, including fungi that have very specific requirements and are as yet unculturable and so only discernible by their DNA signature. Based on DNA detection, it has been suggested that there may be over 12 million species. 

So where are the unknown fungi and how do we find them? Known unknowns are: (1) hidden in plain sight all around us even in well-explored ecosystems – including endophytes, invertebrate pathogens, lichenicolous fungi and mycoparasites; (2) biodiversity hotspots; (3) extreme environments such hot and cold deserts; and (4) underexplored areas of the globe. We can find them by: (1) traditional isolation and inventorying methods; (2) sequencing of DNA extracted directly from the environment; and (3) discriminating cryptic species within existing taxa using the ITS locus or multilocus approaches. Additionally, many fungi (perhaps over 20,000) have been collected but not yet described. So what should our strategies be for discovering and understanding fungal diversity? – I suggest they should have an ecological focus. 

Co-ordinating and catalysing tree species recovery globally and nationally 

Smith, P.P., Cowell, C., Rivers, M., Shaw, K. & Beech, E. 

Botanic Gardens Conservation International, UK 

The Global Tree Assessment is the largest Red List assessment project ever undertaken and comprises the generation of up-to-date global IUCN Red List assessments for the world’s nearly 60,000 known tree species. The Global Tree Assessment has revealed that at least a third of all known tree species are currently threatened with extinction, and that more than 2,800 species are Critically Endangered, meaning that without urgent action, they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. 

The Global Tree Assessment process has generated data, tools and expertise that have enabled BGCI to create a ‘global system’ to co-ordinate and support tree species recovery globally and nationally, with the aim of achieving zero extinctions of known threatened tree species. 

In this presentation, the authors will describe the tools, processes and support provided to conservation policymakers and practitioners at the global, national and sub-national levels to ensure that all threatened tree species are subject to protection and recovery actions. 

The world’s botanic gardens and arboreta grow at least 18,000 tree species and are the repositories of data, knowledge and skills essential to achieving a zero-extinction outcome. It is therefore imperative that the botanic garden conservation community leads this process, deploying our researchers, horticulturists and educators to help society to safeguard all tree species for future generations. 

Funga: A firm step towards mainstream fungal conservation 

Furci, G. 

Fungi Foundation, Chile & USA 

The importance of fungi in both natural ecosystems and human contexts has been extensively documented. Their ecological roles range from nutrient cycling to mycorrhizal partnerships with other organisms, to carbon cycling and sequestration. In the human context, the vast array of services they provide is hard to overstate. It is imperative we protect them on an equal footing as plants and animals while acknowledging the fact that they are neither. The first step to protecting them is saying their name and the Flora Fauna Funga (FFF) Initiative was born out of this necessity. 

At the heart of this discussion lies the recognition that fungi do not just form a separate kingdom but rather a distinct way of life. Unlike plants and animals, which are often perceived as individual species, most fungi exist in a state of inseparable interdependence with organisms around them. Consequently, their protection is an effective way to ensure habitat conservation leading to the safeguarding of nature as a unified whole. 

Language creates reality, and thus, the transformative power of using mycologically-inclusive language is vital to showcase the interconnectedness of nature. The FFF Initiative aims to trigger, spread and track fungi-related terminology in everyday discourse, in organisations, institutions and museums that can make a big impact. By doing so, we can raise public awareness and influence policies. In this talk, we will demonstrate how a ‘simple’ linguistic change can influence environmental decisions, why it is important, and what you can do. 

Africa’s opportunities and challenges for restoring degraded ecosystems and expanding effective conservation and protected areas in line with the 2030 Global Biodiversity Framework 

Mulongoy, K.J. 

Institute for Enhanced Livelihoods, Canada & Democratic Republic of Congo 

In 2019, the Global Biodiversity Outlook reported that the world failed to reach the 2010 targets to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems and to protect 17% of land areas and 10% of marine and coastal areas by 2020. In December 2022, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) which includes a global target to have at least 30% of degraded ecosystems under effective restoration and a target to expand the protection of the planet to 30% by 2030. The Parties agreed to align their national targets with the GBF. Countries have started the process of updating their biodiversity targets. 

Africa’s biodiversity is unique and of global importance. However, its situation raises concerns that require urgent consideration at the international level. For example, Africa’s ecosystem degradation is the highest worldwide, now and in the coming 50 years. Most protected areas in Africa are underfunded and, particularly in war zones, cannot perform effectively. Africa has the largest financial and technical gap for biodiversity conservation, and an unsustainable dependence on foreign assistance for its biodiversity work. 

We describe four key points that will determine the success of African countries in restoring degraded ecosystems and expanding effective conservation and protected areas, as well as how much they will contribute to the global targets. These requirements include ways and means for updating national targets, mobilizing the needed financial resources, and transforming people’s minds for the effective and efficient implementation of national biodiversity action plans. 

A forest landscape has light shining through gaps in the canopy. Leaf litter covers the floor.

State of the World's Plants and Fungi Symposium 2023

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