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New Zealand’s truffle-like fungi: Ghosts of mutualisms past

A purple pouch fungus

Elsewhere in the world, truffles and truffle-like fungi grow buried, are dull-coloured, and are spread by mammals. By contrast, here in New Zealand we have an abundance of them, brightly coloured, growing on the soil surface, and perhaps spread in the past by birds we no longer have, or are losing fast. We know from our recent work on ancient DNA in coprolites (see page 10) that they were part of the diet of moa, kakapo, and others; such evolutionary mutual advantages are well documented globally (animal gets food; seed gets spread), but are prone to upset if either mutual partner goes extinct.

A new Marsden research project, awarded in 2019 and led by Manaaki Whenua’s Dr Jamie Wood, aims to understand for the first time the dispersal mechanisms of these little-studied fungi in New Zealand, both before and after the ‘feathers to fur’ transformation of our forest fauna after human arrival. Knowing whether any living animal species are now consuming and dispersing these fungi will help researchers understand their likely threatened status in the future and contribute to the conservation of our native taonga.