In the world of conservation biology, there's a remarkable and often overlooked kingdom of life that plays a vital role in our ecosystems – fungi. Fungi are instrumental in maintaining the balance of our natural world, yet they are under-documented, which makes them especially vulnerable to the impacts of human activity and climate change.
To shed light on the importance of fungal conservation, North Spore had the privilege of sitting down with Gabriela D'Elia, the president of The Fungal Diversity Survey (FunDiS) while attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival back in August. Gabriela is a passionate advocate and expert in the field of fungal conservation, and her work with FunDiS represents a vital effort to protect and preserve these often misunderstood organisms. Join us as we explore the world of fungi and learn why their conservation is more critical than ever.
North Spore with Gabriela
Thank you for taking the time to meet with us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thank you very much for asking me to be a part of this. I am very happy to represent fungal conservation. My name is Gabriela D’Elia. I'm originally from the Rocky Mountains in Utah, just next door from here (Colorado) and spent a long time in Seattle, which is where I went to school, and also where I fell in love with mushrooms.
The first ever mushroom I found was almost ten years ago in Utah. I noticed them growing on moss. I was like, "Oh my God, wild mushrooms!" And then a few weeks later, I moved to Seattle and saw Amanita muscaria. And that just stopped me in my tracks. I sat with them for probably an hour or two, and I had never seen anything like that before in my life. So that was really my first love story was with the Amanitas.
I started spending personal time going out and exploring Washington State and just tripping over mushrooms, having no idea what I was looking at. I didn't have a clue if this was the same species to this one or if this one was older or a baby one. I just thought they were so incredibly beautiful.
I started looking them up, reading books, going to my local bookstore, Elliot Bay Book Company. I opened up All That the Rain Promises and More and I cried. I was like, "I need to meet these people. I need to learn more, spend more time with these mushrooms." And the mushroom people seemed like such lovely, fun, wild organisms.
While I was in school, I studied environmental studies and I was able to focus on fungal ecology, and many of my professors didn’t really know anything about fungi, but they said, "Go ahead and do it."
When I graduated, I dove right into the local mushroom society up there. The Puget Sound Mycological Society. Mushroom clubs are such fantastic resources for learning about mushrooms and hanging out with people who know a lot more than you do.
That was what really struck me: that my interest with mushrooms really opened up when I was able to do fieldwork on mushrooms, go outside and just spend time with them and notice what they look like and who they are and taking the notes of their habitats, who they're growing with, what kind of conditions are there.
Behind the scenes of our interview
Taye Bright and Mandy Hackney | FunDiS collectors
Reading the story of the ecosystem and the terrain to guess why they might be fruiting right here. I spent a long time diving in with the Puget Sound Mycological Society, the Bridle Trails Fungal Diversity Survey, a local project. And then I moved back home to grow mushrooms in Utah. I started a business called Moon Mushrooms, which created myco astrological tinctures, medicinal mushroom tinctures, and did what I called holistic mycology education, which looked at fungi as not only an incredible science and ecology, but also looking at fungi as a language.
And then I started volunteering with the Fungal Diversity Survey in 2020 as their volunteer blog editor. The mission of the Fungal Diversity Survey is to protect fungi and to do that through engaging community scientists or amateurs, people who just love mushrooms and partnering with conservationists, professionals, academics to make a movement to do something about fungal protection here in North America.
Fungal Diversity Survey is North America's only nonprofit for fungal biodiversity and conservation. It is the only nonprofit in North America working for fungal conservation. Then, I slowly just accrued more and more responsibility and found myself as the director for the past couple of years.
What are some of your current projects? How does the Fungal Diversity Survey accomplish its goals and what are those goals?
Fungal Diversity Survey first began as a vision in 2012 at the Mycological Society of America gathering in Georgia, where over 200 mushroom lovers, professionals, amateurs, and community scientists sat down and said, "We have a problem here. We do not know what fungi exist in North America. Let's do something about it."
Starting in 2017, DNA sequences ran a main part of the mission. Since then, there have been over 8,000 sequences.
The slogan was, "Without a specimen and a DNA sequence, it's just a rumor." So in order to conserve fungi, we need to have these high quality fungal observations. Not only observations on iNaturalist, but also acquiring specimens and storing them so that we can do DNA research on them and save them in a fungaria within academic institutions.
Dean Lyons and Mandy Hackney | FunDiS collectors
Taye Bright | FunDiS collector
To start, one very big project we've been working on is called The Rare Fungi Challenge. The first one we created in 2020. It's called the West Coast Rare Fungi Challenge. It's the first time that any organized promotion of rare and threatened or undocumented fungal species on a whole region has been promoted.
We have 20 targeted rare, threatened, or under-documented funal species on the West Coast. We’re helping community scientists and academics and anybody in the world build information for these species that might have only been seen three times or maybe haven't been seen in the past ten to twenty years.
The second Rare Fungi Challenge launched last summer in 2022 in the northeast. So we have the Northeast Rare Fungi Challenge. And then an announcement is that our southeast, our third southeast Rare Fungi Challenge is just launching this month, just in time for the NAMA, the North American Mycological Association meeting in North Carolina.
FunDiS Local Projects are a really great way for people to do more sustained research on a given piece of land or create what is called a "funga of the land." Three F’s. I will happily represent that since Giuli is not here. Giuliana Furci has been working for at least ten years, maybe more like 20, to get justice for the fungal kingdom, or "kin dom" which I prefer to use.
And if Giuli was here, I know she would say "Please apply the third F. We need to be using flora, fauna, and funga so that fungi can receive the kind of awareness, science, education and funding for conservation that is in place for flora and fauna."
The last project I want to mention is a an entirely innovative project. I'm very grateful to announce that in November of 2022, Fungal Diversity Survey received funding from the State of California and the California Institute for Biodiversity to create a snapshot of fungal biodiversity across the whole state. And this is the first time that any nonprofit in North America since we were the first one is awarded this kind of funding to study fungi.
This is the first time that a workforce has been put together to hire collectors to go out into the field. That's not a part of academia. Academia and academic institutions are so incredibly important. But to be successful in our mission to protect fungi sooner than later, we really need to develop a mycological workforce that complements academia. So this is the first time that we've hired plenty of collectors to go out.
The work you’re doing is incredibly important. What are some ways that people can get involved with fungal conservation in their area?
FunDiS Local Projects are these distributed networks. It's the mycelium of our community science projects. It's just being a part of our mycelial network of localized conservation surveyors. Anybody can join or start a project. We have over 200 registered local projects and quite possibly one of the most important things that anybody can do as a community scientist is to observe the same piece of land for mushrooms and fruiting bodies for years, throughout seasons, throughout time, throughout condition changes, and seasonal changes.
Out of those observations of FunDiS local project, they can send these specimens to us for free DNA sequencing as well, which we're just opening up once again. We've done multiple waves of free DNA sequencing for these FunDiS local projects. So throughout the end of 2023, they can learn more at fundis.org and see what it takes to submit your specimen to us to get free DNA sequencing.
Chromosera | Photo courtesy of Stu Pickell
Hemimycena | Photo courtesy of Stu Pickell
Why is all of this conservation work important?
There is an estimated two to maybe 6 million species of fungi that might exist, and we only have documented 5% of them compared to plants. Just think what might be possible if we discovered more about the fungal kingdom.
We know that fungi connect to over 90% of plant roots throughout the globe. We would not have resilient trees and plants and agriculture and crops without the fungi. Seedlings wouldn't be germinating without fungi.
Medicinally, fungi are also beneficial for the planet as well as our own body ecosystem. And if we think of the most famous example: penicillin from the fungus Penicillium that has altered our world and saves hundreds of millions of lives. Think of all the other medicinal properties we're learning through John Michelotti through Robert Rogers.
All of Earth is changing. Europeans noticed fungi declines in the eighties and nineties and they acted on it. United States in North America doesn't have a baseline understanding of the fungi in order to see if certain species are thriving or declining.
So in order to protect fungi, we have to understand who was there and we have to do a basic inventory and we have to do long term monitoring in order to see what's happening. See the trends. There are plenty of threats to fungi, just like there are plenty of ecological threats to most organisms alive right now.
A lot of the threats to fungi include habitat decline, climate change, and land fragmentation. Another large threat is soil compaction. Fungi need air to breathe. Fungi exude globulin which is responsible for soil architecture and stability and porosity. And so we need airy soils.
Amanita augusta | Photo courtesy of Stu Pickell
It becomes difficult to isolate fungi from the trees, from the squirrels and the deer and the bugs and the insects that sometimes make essential relationships to certain fungal species. And so when tree hosts are declining, that means that the fungus associated is probably in decline as well.
Cortinarius cistopulchripes | Photo courtesy of Stu Pickell
We know from plant research that a lot of tree and plant species are being threatened, but we don't have the adequate data to show that their fungal associations might be declining just yet. So that's what we're working on. And I would say that the largest threat to fungi right now is lack of awareness, lack of understanding that the fungi are such primary actors in the ecosystem.
Even that they are there at all.
Even that they're there at all.
It's part of the state's executive order to help preserve 30% of it by 2030. Right. Which is an incredible feat. But that means that they've opened up funding to help understand all kinds of biodiversity within the state. They're a very forward thinking state. So if California does something, other states tend to follow. So we hope that this kind of work can be replicated and localized across North America.
We've had really good and wonderful support from our local mycological community, but getting the kind of monetary support is really what we're seeking right now for our organization to take the next step.
Every state's got a state bird and a state flower. And so there is an initiative to have a state mushroom. How is the Fungal Diversity Survey involved with that?
I mean, it's not so much a fungal diversity survey initiative as it is a commonly understood mushroom person initiative that we've all come to. There are maybe six states that have state mushrooms right now, and for the past few years there's been much more of a push to get states to recognize fungi on their state symbol list.
And while it's not so much of a push from an organization, it can very greatly change how fungi are perceived, how fungi are taken care of and accepted on a political status, on a legal status. So California just passed its state mushroom in the past year. They have the California Golden Chanterelle. It's very exciting.
We wanted that for Maine!
Not the California Golden Chanterelle, but Maine gets great Chanterelles.
Well, what do you think should be Maine state mushroom?
Well, the Lobster mushroom would make a lot of sense. We get a lot of those. And lobsters are a very popular food in Maine… although that may be too confusing, we don't know. That would be maybe our vote!
Oh my gosh. That's so perfect. So we just worked with the Mushroom Society of Utah and we worked for the past year on getting porcini. We got the Boletus edulis, which just passed as the state mushroom in Utah with the help of Brent Danzinger, Keaton Trimble, Chandler Rosenberg, Katie Lawson, Ashley Simon.
Mandy Quark | FunDiS collector
Gabriela wirth a box of fungal specimens
We chose that mushroom because it's an important ectomycorrhizal fungus that forms associations with fur and spruce trees, especially in more montane high elevation forests across Utah that are experiencing larger, quicker changes as our climate adapts.
So Lobster mushroom sounds amazing.
The state mushrooms are not a FunDiS initiative, but I think anybody - people coming from clubs, people coming as individuals - check to see if you have a state mushroom, only maybe six or seven do. If you don't–get one, it's not that difficult–usually we had a pretty decent time in Utah and the New York state fungus that's slated is Lactarius peckii.
That’s definitely on our bucket list. Getting Maine a state mushroom. We’ll see! Gabriela, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and all the people who are interested in fungi and fungal conservation.
Thanks again. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you all wanting to promote the protection component of it.
FunDiS Links & Events
FunDiS on Social Media