G.A.M. Scott, T.J. Entwisle, T.W. May & G.N. Stevens
Environment Australia, May 1997
ISBN 0 6422 1399 2
George A. M. Scott
Cryptogams, even when restrictively defined as in this report, are exceedingly diverse. Biologically, they span the maximum possible range from Procaryotes (blue-green algae) to Eucaryotic green plants and Eucaryotic fungi. Ecologically, they occur in every terrestrial and inland aquatic habitat in Australia. Consequently, a diversity of methods and skills is required to study and understand them. In contrast, cryptogams have the following characteristics in common:
Apart from the theoretical size of clones, none of the cryptogams is physically very large. Very many are microscopic and most require the use of a microscope to identify and study them. Conversely, each of the four groups – particularly the fungi – is characterised by very large numbers of taxa.
Relative to vascular plants, cryptogams are poorly known taxonomically, are generally at least as difficult to recognise and identify, and present just as many, if not more, critical taxonomic problems. The taxonomic literature is also far less complete; for example there is still an instability associated with some cryptogams at the phylum level. The situation for Australian fungi is particularly daunting. On present estimates there are 250 000 species of which only about 5 % have been formally described. On current rates of progress it will take 1000 years to complete formal descriptions of all Australian fungi, and yet this knowledge is basic to informed efforts at conservation.
Information on the conservation status of individual species of cryptogams is very poor. There is currently insufficient information to nominate any fungus species or communities as Endangered or Vulnerable, and the information for the other groups is by no means complete.
Cryptogams play an essential but poorly recognised role in the ecosystem, for example as the basis of all food chains (phytoplankton) and by stabilising soils and allowing them to build up humus (bryophytes, lichens and algae). Fungi are significant in Australian ecosystems as decomposers and nutrient cyclers, as partners of vascular plants in mutualisms (mycorrhizas), as food for native mammals, and as parasites of plants and animals.
Cryptogams similarly have a high but as yet untapped potential as a source of economically valuable products or functions. For example, the unique secondary metabolites of some lichens are being examined abroad for new pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Recent work has identified compounds with marked anti-tumour, anti-amoeba and nematocidal properties. Fungi are a very important proven source of biologically active compounds such as antibiotics (e.g. penicillin) and anti-viral and anti-tumour drugs, and are also used in food production (e.g. beer, wine and bread). Fungi may also have important roles to play in the biological control of pest plants (e.g. pasture weeds) and animals (e.g. locusts); improving productivity (e.g. mycorrhiza in forestry) and in the degradation of pollutants.
In spite of their undoubted values, there has been relatively little effort expended by the scientific community on promoting the significance of cryptogams. Worse, on the rare occasions that cryptogams do become evident to the public, it is usually in a negative context – recent experience with blooms of blue-green algae is a good example. Few of those involved in land management would understand the ecological role of cryptogams, and even if they did, the depth of our understanding is not sufficient to recommend ways in which to maximise the benefits arising from this role while minimising any adverse impacts.
Relative to the resources and staffing devoted to the taxonomic study of other groups of Australian biota, there is a neglect of cryptogamic (especially fungal) taxonomy in all types of research institutions. The number of angiosperm botanists employed in Australian herbaria and universities – while still too few – is probably in the hundreds. This compares with around nine botanists for bryophytes and lichens combined, two for algae and the equivalent of about ten for fungi. In addition, fungi are especially poorly represented in herbarium collections.
With the exception of plant and animal (including human) pathogens, the teaching of cryptogams is now a negligible component of biology teaching in most, if not all, Australian universities. Apart from a small number of ABRS grants under the Flora and Fungi of Australia, there is negligible funding for research on cryptogams.
Cryptogams have been treated academically and practically as a continuation of the vascular plants, and the whole approach to conservation of cryptogams is skewed in ways that are inappropriate for them. Under present definitions, the concepts of rare and threatened species, flagship taxa, and even an 'individual' plant, are difficult to apply for most cryptogams.
The study and conservation of cryptogams in Australia is at a crossroads. While the gaps in knowledge are very large – particularly for fungi-the landscape has not been modified to such an extent that widespread loss of taxa is likely to have occurred.
In our favour, there is a solid basis of taxonomic research established by a small number of dedicated workers over many years. Among this group are workers who are currently unable to find employment in their field of interest, but who could be mobilised at relatively short notice. Also, the limited information to date indicates a high potential for developing commercial applications for cryptogams and their by-products.
Nevertheless the situation is becoming urgent. The very small number of professional staff working on cryptogams at present will be hard pressed to make significant progress towards the information needed. At the same time, the rate of landscape modification appears to be accelerating, and the danger of increased extinction rates is a real threat.
The National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity has as its goal the protection of biological diversity and the maintenance of ecological processes and systems. It could be argued that in the non-vascular flora lies Australia's greatest challenge to meeting this goal. In more pragmatic terms, unless quick, concerted efforts are made, Australia stands to lose the benefits that could undoubtedly arise from a more complete understanding of our cryptogams. The information and recommendations contained in this report indicate how this challenge might be met.