Fungi new to the UK discovered in the Cairngorms

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14 July 2022, UK: Two species of fungi new to the UK have been discovered in Scotland’s Cairngorm mountains by a team of volunteers working with the James Hutton Institute and Plantlife, the international wild plant conservation charity.

Amanita groenlandica is an arctic species originally described from Greenland and circumpolar in its distribution, with Scandinavia its previously recorded most southerly location. Acrodontium antarcticum is a fungus originally described from Antarctica.

These rare fungi, previously found poles apart, both favour the unique cold habitat and climate of Scotland’s Cairngorms. This internationally important landscape which, due to its elevation and distance from the sea, experiences an exceptionally cold and snowy climate, supports the best examples of arctic-alpine vegetation found anywhere in the UK.

219 soil samples were collected by the hillwalking community at various altitudes from 55 of the 58 Munros of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park last summer, and DNA was extracted from the soil and sequenced by scientists at the Institute, resulting in over 17000 records of 2748 fungal species in just three months.

This unique collaboration of mountain enthusiasts, cutting-edge science and expert insight from Plantlife demonstrates the pressures from climate change and atmospheric pollution on this fast-changing habitat. The research team’s knowledge of the close connection between plants and fungi means that the data collected can be used to prioritise habitats for conservation and restoration and provide a baseline against which the effects of climate and environmental change can be monitored.

Andrea Britton, a Plant Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute, said “Fungi are crucially important to the functioning of our alpine ecosystems, but because they are mostly hidden below ground, and because alpine ecosystems are remote and difficult to access, we know very little about the distribution and diversity of fungi in this iconic habitat.

“Thanks to the hard work of volunteers and scientists coming together, the data from this survey will add significantly to our knowledge of this vital group and can be used to start identifying which habitats and locations are particularly important for conservation of fungal diversity.”

Plantlife’s Keilidh Ewan, project manager, said “There are more living organisms in just one teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet, and soil biodiversity has a hugely important role to play in the functioning of ecosystems. The coming together of researchers, conservationists and the local community has uncovered some wild and wonderful species and has created evidence-based foundations against which the effects of climate and environmental change can be monitored going forward. This is helping us to understand the threats that this fragile habitat is facing and, ultimately, the more we understand, the better we can protect these much-loved places for the future.”

Many of Scotland’s alpine species are already living on the edge of their natural range with nowhere else left to go in a landscape that is warming up fast, and these are the species most at risk of extinction. In harsh environments such as these, fungi have a crucial role to play in helping arctic-alpine plants obtain the essential nutrients needed to survive, yet very little is known about them, so these exciting scientific discoveries come at a crucial time.

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