By Blayne van der Spuy
Imagine that there was an entire story of friendship, loyalty and even betrayal just beneath our feet. Did you know that just such a system really does exist in nature – even here in the Nuwejaars Wetlands Special Management Area? And the very basis of this very intricate system is fungi.
When you look into a forest, what the common eye sees is a beautiful sight of trees and birdlife.
But what we cannot see is the underground system called mycorrhizal networks, or as scientists have dubbed it: “the wood wide web”.
This network is made up of fungi filaments known as mycelium. And these filaments tap into plant roots acting as optic fibre cables allowing trees and plants to send nutrients as well as signals and messages to all the surrounding vegetation.
Using this network, trees are able send nutrition to surrounding trees and lend a helping branch. Research shows that trees can actually show favouritism towards the same species or even their own saplings!
Our pockets of forests
The NWSMA is home to small forest patches that still remain here. A number of small Milkwood forests are found here, and some valleys in our mountainous sections are home to remnant Afromontane forest patches.
It’s here that you’ll find Mycorrhiza – which occurs in 80% of land plants. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi make up the majority of this. These fungi have been surveyed on every continent except for Antarctica. Ectomycorrhiza is also found mainly in boreal forests and in tropical climates.
The importance of mycorrhizal fungi
Each type of fungi hosts specific species of plants and both are very sensitive to the surrounding conditions such as temperature and humidity. When for example temperatures start rising as a result of global warming, ectomycorrhizal fungi will start dying off and will be replaced with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi resulting in a loss of biodiversity.
What becomes clear is the importance of mycorrhizal fungi – and why it’s essential for the survival of plants. If it’s not protected, we could experience a complete loss in biodiversity around the world.