G.A.M. Scott, T.J. Entwisle, T.W. May & G.N. Stevens
Environment Australia, May 1997
ISBN 0 6422 1399 2
For the purposes of this report, cryptogams are defined restrictively as the non-marine lichens, mosses, algae and fungi. Cryptogams tend to be small, often requiring a microscope for identification; they are exceedingly diverse in their biology and ecology; and they are represented by very large numbers of taxa. The skills required to study them are similarly diverse. They play an essential but poorly recognised role in the ecosystem, for example as the basis of all food chains (phytoplankton) and by stabilising soils (bryophytes, lichens and algae). Fungi are significant as decomposers and nutrient cyclers, as partners of vascular plants in mutualisms (mycorrhiza), as food for native mammals, and as parasites. Without the algae and fungi in particular, lakes, forests and grasslands would not function and agriculture could not survive.
Cryptogams have a high but largely untapped potential as a source of economically valuable products or functions. For example, the unique secondary metabolites of some lichens are known to have anti-tumour and other useful properties, and are being examined abroad for new pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Fungi are a very important 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.
Despite their undoubted values, there has been little effort by the scientific community to promote the significance of cryptogams to the wider public. Worse, on the rare occasion that cryptogams become newsworthy, it tends to be in a negative context (e.g. recent experience with blooms of blue-green algae). Few people involved in land management understand the ecological role of cryptogams, and with present knowledge we do not have sufficient understanding to recommend management actions that might maximise the benefits arising from this role while minimising any adverse impacts.
Relative to vascular plants, cryptogams are poorly known. The taxonomic literature is far less complete, particularly for Australian fungi, of which only some 5% of the estimated 250 000 species have been described. At current rates of progress this task will take more than 1000 years to complete. Not surprisingly, information on the conservation status of individual species of cryptogams is very poor. There is currently insufficient information to nominate any species or community of fungi as Endangered or Vulnerable, and the information for the other groups is by no means complete.
There is a serious lack of resources and staffing devoted to the study and teaching of cryptogam taxonomy and ecology in Australia. Cryptogams, particularly fungi, also tend to be poorly represented in herbarium collections. Apart from a small number of ABRS grants under the Flora of Australia program, cryptogams receive negligible funding for research. Cryptogams have been treated academically and practically as a continuation of the vascular plants, and the whole approach to their conservation is skewed in ways that are inappropriate for them.
The study and conservation of cryptogams in Australia is at a crossroads. Although 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. None-the-less, the situation is becoming urgent. The very small number of professional staff currently working on cryptogams will be hard pressed to make significant inroads to the information needed. At the same time, the rate of landscape modification appears to be accelerating, and the danger of increased extinction rates is real. In our favour, there is a solid basis of taxonomic research established by a small number of dedicated workers over many years.
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 the non-vascular flora is 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 wider understanding of our cryptogams. The recommendations on the following pages indicate how we may meet this challenge.