Fungi in the diet of Australian animals
Truffles are macrofungi that form underground fruit-bodies. Truffles have evolved a spore dispersal strategy that depends on animals to dig them up, eat them, and then excrete the spores in a nice package of manure, at some distance from the original site. The spores germinate and form ectomycorrhizas with various plant groups. Dispersal of truffle spores by mammals is thus an important process that contributes to the health of forested ecosystems. Truffle dispersal by mammals may also be increasingly important in the more fragmented habitats we are creating, because some mammals travel across gaps between habitat islands.
Most of the small and medium sized mammals in Australia eat truffles and other fungi to varying degrees. Potoroos, bandicoots and many rodents have long been known to consume fungi. However, we are still discovering some surprises. Swamp wallabies are generalist browsers, but we consistently find truffle spores in their faecal pellets.
Most mammals appear to snack on whatever truffles are available at a particular time and place. Animals are 60 to 80 per cent more successful at finding fruit-bodies than we are. The fungal spores in faecal pellets can give a snapshot of the macrofungal diversity and community assemblage of a site at a particular time.
Comparison of data from different studies is difficult, as preparation and data collection are generally not consistent. We are developing some standard methods for recording spores from faecal pellets for general use.
We are currently developing an online truffle and mycophagy database, truffMO. The truffMO database will eventually enable students, researchers and the general public to find out more about the links between truffles and mammal mycophagy in Australia.
- Teresa Lebel (Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne)
- Karl Vernes (University of New England)
- Melissa Danks (University of New England)
- Hermon Slade Foundation