Tea-tree fingers, a species of fungus that suspiciously looks like burnt fingers, continue to struggle with their dwindling population in a small, remote Australian island.

A team of volunteers and scientists from Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria in Australia discovered what might be the largest population of this odd and critically endangered (according to the IUCN) fungus species on French Island, a detached location several kilometers from the southeastern Mornington Peninsula.

Hypocreopsis amplectens, or Tea-Tree Fingers

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Tea-Tree Fingers Grasping for Survival

An article from the old website for the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria reports that the tea-tree fingers (Hypocreopsis amplectens) normally occur at only low densities and are found in a few spots in mainland Australia. Their numbers have been threatened over the last years with wildfires as well as unsustainable land-management practices.

Before the huge French Island discovery of these tea-tree fingers, the elusive fungus characterized by its finger-like tendrils were only known to occur at only three small sites scattered along the Western Port Bay coast, plus another at the small town of Launching Place. These sites only hold less than 20 individual fruit bodies known to local scientists.

On the first day of the expedition on the remote island, which originally aimed to find a comparable habitat to the critically endangered fungus, a team of 16 naturalists under the leadership of Dr. Michael Amor and Dr. Sapphire McMullan-Fisher found a new and large population of tea-tree fingers, containing nine distinct fruit bodies. Additionally, foraging done by horticulturist Penny Evans during break time led to the discovery of the largest population discovered so far for the species. The thriving tea-tree fingers population contains more than 100 individual fruit bodies, more than all mainland observations combined.

"Critically, this is the only existing Tea-tree Fingers population within a protected National Park. Three out of four mainland sites have uncertain futures as they are adjacent to sand mines," Amor said in the latest news release from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. "The relatively high abundance of Tea-tree Fingers on French Island may reflect the undisturbed nature of this comparatively pristine area and could offer insight into the historical state of mainland populations-that is, before human driven disturbance and habitat loss."

Understanding their Prospects of Survival

Researchers explain that to continuously survive, tea-tree fingers need large swaths of land that have not experienced fires for quite some time. Also, they need the presence of a symbiotic fungus that would sustain the finger-like species, as well as a steady supply of freshly fallen wood material for its fruiting bodies to grow on. In recent years, climate change has encouraged warmer and drier climates. Paired with other factors such as bushfires, anthropogenic activities such as land development and sand mining have driven the tea-tree fingers to become critically endangered, according to a previous article on Fungi Map, also written by McMullan-Fisher.

While the discovery of tea-tree fingers in a protected landscape improves the prospects of this fungus species for survival, McMullan Fisher also notes an important question that could also spell its chances of survival: how did these finger-like organisms crawl their way to an island separated by 2.5 kilometers, or a little over one and a half miles, of water from its known habitat.


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