Worms keep the peace in ‘Spore Wars’

U. CARDIFF (UK) — Lice, millipedes, and worms act as woodland diplomats, ensuring the survival of weaker species of fungi that compete with stronger creatures for space and resources.

A new study published in Ecology Letters shows that by feeding on the most combative fungi, invertebrates ensure that less competitive species are not entirely destroyed or digested.

“By not allowing the most dominant fungus to destroy all opponents, fungal diversity is maintained within the woodland,” says Tom Crowther, a PhD student of biosciences working with Lynne Boddy and Hefin Jones at Cardiff University.

Without fungal peacekeepers, many species would be “displaced reducing woodland diversity and ultimately affecting the cycling and recycling of nutrients within the soil,” says Tom Crowther. (Credit: Cardiff U.)

“This is an important process as fungi are responsible for maintaining soil quality and fertility, allowing our native trees and plants to grow, and the woodland itself to function. We also know that the diversity of soil organisms plays a major role in determining plant diversity.

“In many ways, what happens in the woodland is very much like the (Nintendo Wii) game Spore Wars. Without these invertebrates acting as peacekeepers, many important fungal species would be displaced reducing fungal diversity and ultimately affecting the cycling and recycling of nutrients within the soil.”

The study is the first to show how predicted changes in soil fauna, as a result of current climate change, may potentially have major consequences for the functioning of Britain’s woodland ecosystems.

“It’s possible that what we’ve seen happen in woodland may also take place in all other soil environments,” says Crowther. “Soil invertebrates may not only be important in ensuring the health of our forests by maintaining fungal diversity, they may also be crucial for our garden and agricultural soils.”

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