Terrestrial plant and animal species: Plant species and fungi


Plant species

The pattern in distribution of listed plant species has not changed significantly since 2011. The general trend is for higher proportions of plants to be threatened along the east coast and in the south-west of Australia (Figure BIO17).

The highest number of listed threatened plant species occurs in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia, with 157 listed species, 15 of them critically endangered. The South Eastern Queensland and Sydney Basin IBRA regions also have high numbers of listed species. The South Eastern Highlands region of Victoria and New South Wales has 124 listed species, 12 of which are critically endangered.


Fungi are the hidden connectors between many of the visible plants and animals in ecosystems. Fungi provide significant ecosystem services through decomposition (recycling), because they can break down the complex cellulose and lignin molecules in wood. Fungi sporophores are also food for animals, enmeshing fungi in food webs. Numerous invertebrates gain food and shelter from fungi. Truffle-like fungi are especially numerous in Australia, and make up a significant component of the diet of many native mammals, especially potoroos and bettongs (many of which are threatened). Mycorrhizal (fungus–root) fungi form mutually beneficial relationships with most green plants. Such relationships are important in Australia’s nutrient-poor soils, where fungi can efficiently extract nutrients vital to plant growth, while plants provide fungi with sugar from photosynthesis. Fungi growing in soil compete for nutrients with myriad other microorganisms. Thus, many fungi produce secondary metabolites that have significant biological activity, such as antibiotics (e.g. penicillin was derived from a fungus).

In Australia, perhaps 50 per cent of the macrofungi are formally described, but most microfungi are yet to be collected and formally described. Estimates of the diversity of fungi have used multipliers of plant diversity, because of many fungi being specific to plants at the species, genus or family level. Estimates for Australian fungi range from 50,000 (× 2) to 250,000 (× 10) species. Recent analysis of DNA in soil, including samples from Australia, has revealed tens of thousands of species-level ‘molecular taxa’ of fungi among relatively small sample sets (fewer than 1000 separate samples), confirming the order of magnitude of the previous estimates of the diversity of the Kingdom Fungi. Most of these molecular taxa do not match known species.

As noted in SoE 2011, few references to fungi and other non-plant, non-animal species are included in jurisdictional reporting. No fungi are listed as threatened nationally under the EPBC Act. However, several states include fungi in threatened species legislation:

  • New South Wales—9 species and 1 ecological community of fungi are listed under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995.
  • Victoria—3 fungi are listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988. 9 fungi are included in the 2014 Advisory List of Rare or Threatened Plants.
  • Western Australia—39 fungi (including 24 lichens) are listed as Priority Species 1, 2 or 3 in the Threatened and Priority Flora List under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950.
  • Tasmania—23 fungi (all lichens) are listed under the Threatened Species Protection Act 1995.

No fungi are listed under state or territory threatened species legislation in the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Queensland or South Australia.

One fungus that occurs in Australia (bunyip egg—Claustula fischeri) is listed on the IUCN Global Red List.

The low number of species currently formally listed under state and territory legislation reflects ad hoc nominations, mostly by community groups, and is not necessarily a true reflection of the proportion of species that are threatened. Community profiling (using metagenomic approaches—see New technologies, solutions and innovations) of fungi has the potential to establish how fungal communities vary across hosts and across plant communities. It is necessary to understand these relationships to increase confidence that current approaches to conservation of plant communities are effectively ‘carrying along’ the vast array of fungi that occur in Australia, in the absence of knowledge of each individual species of fungus.

Only Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia include coverage of fungi in their statewide checklists or census records. Fungi are also not represented in most biodiversity monitoring programs, except for FORESTCHECK in Western Australia, which has been sampling macrofungi. There is generally a lack of mycological expertise in Australia among taxonomists and ecologists, as well as within land management agencies, and most work is undertaken by nongovernment organisations and community groups (e.g. Fungimap and the Sydney Fungal Studies Group; also see Box BIO7).

Cresswell ID, Murphy H (2016). Biodiversity: Terrestrial plant and animal species: Plant species and fungi. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/biodiversity/topic/2016/terrestrial-plant-and-animal-species-plant-species-and-fungi, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65ac828812