Local Fungi Explored

By Risidra Mendis | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 16 2021
Echo Local Fungi Explored

By Risidra Mendis 

Some are found hidden beneath rocks and others concealed in undergrowth of forests and places where you would least expect to find them. New discoveries are made and others go extinct, disappearing from the earth never to return. Plants as we all know are a wide variety of species that have been in existence for many long years. However, in comparison to other species, they seem to be one of the least studied types in the country’s history. 

This explains why not much is known about these unique species despite Sri Lanka being a country well known for its rich biodiversity and exclusive ecosystems. However, with the recent launch of the National Red List 2020 Flora many new discoveries have come to light. Former Director General of National Botanic Gardens Peradeniya, Prof. Siril Wijesundara says the first global Red List was published in 1966 in Sri Lanka and the first list of threatened plants was published in 1987 by late Prof. D. Abeywickrema and was improved in 1993. 

“The proper Red List was published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1999 but that list didn’t include all flora. In the Red List 2020 we were able to assess the entire flora in the country. Under flora we include algae, fungi, lichens, bryophytes, ferns and seed plants,” Prof. Wijesundara explains. He says the Red List is not just a list of species and their status, it is a powerful tool to inform and catalyse action for biodiversity conservation and policy change, critical to protecting the natural resources we need to survive. 

Red List fungi 

Included in the Red List book under A Provisional List of Fungi in Sri Lanka, Nimal Adikaram from the National Institute of Fundamental Studies and Department of Botany, University of Peradeniya and Deepthi Yakandawala from the Department of Botany, University of Peradeniya talk about fungi – an area rarely touched by many. “Fungi are one of the largest and most widely distributed, but lesser studied, groups of eukaryotes on Earth. 

Mycologists estimate the total fungal species to be between 2.2 million to 3.8 million on earth. Only about 144,000 species of fungi have been identified and described. The Kingdom Fungi is a monophyletic group which implies that all modern fungi can be traced back to a single ancestral organism. The present phylogenetic classification of fungi recognises eight phyla within the Kingdom Fungi, namely; Cryptomycota, Microsporidia, Blastocladiomycota, Chytridiomycota, Zoopagomycota, Mucoromycota, Ascomycota, and Basidiomycota,” Adikaram and Yakandawala say. 

They say certain groups that were long believed as ‘fungi’ such as Oomycota and Myxomycota, with sporebearing structures, are not recognised as fungi that have evolved from a common ancestor. Fungi contribute to a significant part of Sri Lanka’s biodiversity. “The native fungal flora in Sri Lanka has been conservatively estimated to be around 25,000 species. Fungi have been studied in Sri Lanka since the 18th century, most exclusively by British botanists/mycologists, dating the history of mycology in Ceylon back to 1783. The earliest record of fungi in Ceylon by the British is probably by Houttuyn (1788) under the names Peziza ceyloneche and Peziza limbosa,” Adikaram explains. 

Fungi of Ceylon 

They say Berkeley and Broome (1870, 1871, 1873) described 403 species of agarics and from 1905 – 1925 T. Petch collected fungi extensively and published in the Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniya. “The outcome of these studies was summarised in an annotated list, as The Fungi of Ceylon which amount to about 640 genera and 2,182 species. Since the days of Petch, larger collections of fleshy fungi have not been undertaken in the country. Recent identification of 50 macro-fungi, belonging to Ascomycota and Basidiomycota, was one of the few studies conducted using a medium-scale collection. 

The approximate number of fungi known to date would be just over 2,500, including the 2,182 species recorded by the British prior to 1950. Yet, over 85 per cent of the estimated 25,000 species remain unknown,” Adikaram and Yakandawala explain. The information gathered on Sri Lankan fungal flora after 1950 remains scattered. Several handbooks illustrating the morphology of numerous genera of fungi authored by Coomaraswamy (1979; 1981a), Coomaraswamy and De Fonseka (1981b), Coomaraswamy and Kumarasingham (1988) were published in the 1970s by the UNESCO MAB National Committee. These were useful as guides for identification of fungi or disease diagnosis. 

Agaric Flora of Sri Lanka by David N. Pegler provides illustrated descriptions of over 330 agarics collected in Ceylon and identified during the latter half of the 19th century. The first Checklist of Plant Pathogenic Fungi and Oomycota in Sri Lanka by Adikaram and Yakandawala, 2020, presents 400 pathogenic species recorded after the 1950’s. Sri Lanka is still to establish a national culture collection or Herbarium for fungi. “Two checklists of fungi in Sri Lanka are included in the present manuscript. One of them provides 1,139 species of fungi associated with plants in Sri Lanka, belonging to 422 genera and 183 families. 

Mycosphaerellaceae is the most species-rich family, containing 107 species. Genus Uredo contains the most number of species with 56 and Cercospora comes next with 45 species. The second checklist brings in 345 species of agaric flora belonging to 96 genera known in Sri Lanka. As an initial step towards conservation and bridging the knowledge gaps on Sri Lankan fungi, the present updating of the National Red inventories included selected fungal groups. The data provided in the list will be useful in the compilation of fungal biodiversity of Sri Lanka. The checklist will, not by any means, be a conclusive list and new records will continue to be added regularly in the future,” Adikaram and Yakandawala reveal. 

Lichenised fungi 

In The Provisional List of Lichens in Sri Lanka by Department of Natural Resources, Udeni Jayalal from Sabaragamuwa University, Gothamie Weerakoon and Pat Wolseley from the Department of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, London, Siril Wijesundara from the National Institute of Fundamental Studies, and Veranja Karunaratne from the Department of Chemistry, University of Peradeniya, say the list of lichenised fungi from Sri Lanka contains 876 species in 233 genera in 60 families that have been collected and described from Sri Lanka based on material collected over a period of time from the 19th Century to the present day. 

“Collections made by G.H.K. Thwaites (1812-82) during his time as Superintendent and later Director (1849-80) of the Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya were sent to lichenologists in Europe and resulted in publications describing many new species, such as by Leighton (1869) (specimens in British Museum) and Nylander (1900) (specimens in Helsinki). However, the major collections and types of Sri Lankan lichen taxa from this period are in foreign herbaria and few have been worked on recently to resolve their taxonomic position and status. Specimens that have not been examined recently and whose taxonomic status is unconfirmed have been excluded from this list but can be found in an outline of previous publications by Brunnbauer (1984-1987),” the authors explain. 

They say the most significant changes have been made in the last decade in taxonomic concepts, through the use of molecular and chemical methods and through the growth in the number of local specialists, who have made collections resulting in publications of both new records and new species from 2011 onwards. “The use of modern molecular concepts has enabled the re-evaluation of key tropical families Graphidaceae, Ramalinaceae and Trypetheliaceae presented here. From 2011 onwards Weerakoon has described 80 new species and 400 new records for the country. 

Fully identified specimens and types of new species are deposited at the National Herbarium. However, records of lichen taxa in families that were formerly used in a more restrictive sense, such as Lecideaceae are omitted from this list until specimens can be re-examined and their taxonomic status confirmed. This list has been a collaborative effort which is ongoing and there are still many habitats that are underexplored in Sri Lanka including the dry zone, intermediate zone, and mangroves. We predict that the list will continue to increase as we describe the diversity and endemism of lichen and lichenicolous species in Sri Lanka,” the authors say. 

Rich biodiversity 

Commenting on the launch of the Red List 2020, Secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Dr. Anil Jasinghe said biodiversity of Sri Lanka is significantly important both on a regional and global scale. “Sri Lanka has a varied climate and topography, which has resulted in rich biodiversity, distributed within a wide range of ecosystems and has the richest biodiversity per unit area in the Asian region. The Ministry of Environment is the national focal point for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Biodiversity Secretariat of this ministry initiated updating the National Red List – conservation status of flora, in collaboration with the National Herbarium of the Department of National Botanic Gardens,” Dr. Jasinghe says. He says the National Red List provides conservation status of assessed species in a given country at that particular time. “One of the purposes of the Red List are to illustrate trends over time, in the threat status of species in different biogeographic jurisdictions or political regions. It is also possible to calculate indices at the national level and it provides necessary information for the conservation planning in a country. 

As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in accordance with Article 7 and Annex 1 of the Convention, identifying and monitoring components of biological diversity are important for conservation and sustainable use, including threatened species.” Dr. Jasinghe explains. He adds that Red List information supports to achieve Target 4 (the loss of species is significantly reduced) of the ‘National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan (NBSAP) 2016- 2022.’ “Therefore in order to fulfil the above commitments, the process of updating the Red List has been identified as a priority. The two Government institutions gathered to establish a database to facilitate conservation priorities, future research studies and provide guidance to make policy and legislation in relation to biodiversity using Government funds. 

The previous updated National Red List 2012 was published and this is the new edition of the National Red List of Flora with the current evaluated information,” Dr. Jasinghe says. The Ministry Secretary thanks all the taxonomists, naturalists, researchers and other resource persons who contributed to fulfil this target for their utmost technical support for the preparation of this publication. “I strongly believe the Ministry of Environment has the responsibility to implement the conservation programmes to protect our globally significant biodiversity and reduce the loss of floral species,” Dr. Jasinghe says.

By Risidra Mendis | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 16 2021

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