Te Hauturu-o-Toi is a treasure chest of species of all sorts, many now missing from the mainland. This is partly due to its isolation and ruggedness, but also the low impact of human presence over the centuries and its preservation as a nature reserve for the last 125 years. Hauturu is an intact ecosystem – one that has all its natural components almost unspoiled by imported species (pests, weeds, humans). It is a place where it is possible for scientists to learn of interactions between native species not otherwise seen together. The completeness of this ecosystem seems to have a spiritual quality too – nature in harmony – that many people comment on.
The striking blue Entoloma appears on our $50 note.
One species we don’t seem to hear much about is fungi. Fungi are an important part of nature’s sustainable cycle in their role as decomposers, and yet they, like invertebrates, seem to be less well known or understood. There are more than 400 species that are known from Te Hauturu-o-Toi and there well may be more to discover, some possibly unknown to science. They are a very diverse group occupying a wide range of habitats – from mountaintops to the ocean.
Fungi help to break down dead plants, animals and other fungi; they aid plant nutrition and provide a food source for invertebrates and some animals. To us, they are useful in bread-making, fermentation (to produce wine or beer), antibiotics, breaking down toxic waste or for food. But there is a downside – diseases caused by fungal species. For example, the chytrid fungus that has devastated the world frog populations. Meanwhile, our kauri trees are suffering because of Phytophthora agathidicida, an introduced fungus-like organism. Some fungi are also toxic to humans and animals.
Autumn and winter are the best times to be aware of fungi as this is when their fruiting bodies, part of their reproductive cycle, show above the ground. We see colourful mushroom-like growths, such as the blue Entoloma that appears on our $50 note, or strange shapes like the white basket fungus. Walking the tracks on Hauturu in autumn one can spot even tiny fungi by their colour; tiny little bright red mushrooms no bigger than a baby’s finger nail; bird-nest fungi (little fluffy white nests filled with what look like eggs); bright yellow splodges that look like slime; and purple balls, bio-luminescent fungi that glow in the dark.
While these visible parts are their reproductive bodies that mostly release their spores into the air to be carried by the wind, the real action has been going on in the soil or on dead matter. A large number of plants rely on an association with soil fungi to help breakdown and provide nutrients. It appears vast networks can be formed in the soil interconnecting plants within forest systems. The more we are learning about natural systems, the more we realise how interconnected everything is and how important all species are to the survival of the earth.
Lyn Wade, Little Barrier Island Supporters Trust