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Media Release
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Dr David Kemp

14 November 2002

The World of Fungi Uncovered at the Plant Underworld Exhibition


The Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, today unveiled a new series of educational resources, revealing there is much more to know about an often overlooked group of organisms - the fungi.

Speaking today at the launch of 'The Plant Underworld' exhibition at the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra, Dr Kemp said that a new web site, two new books and a 'Fungi and their Kingdoms' poster, have been developed with more than $31,000 from the Commonwealth Government to promote public appreciation and interest in fungi and mosses.

"These exciting educational products produced by the Australian Biological Resources Study record an amazing array of interesting facts such as how fungi obtain their food, their diversity and their link in the ecosystem chain," Dr Kemp said.

Fungi are the largest group of organisms on earth after the insects and are part of a group known as the cryptogams.

"They cover a large diversity of organisms including those that produce antibiotics and plant parasites; decomposers, which release nutrients to the environment; and the symbiotic fungi, which are necessary to sustain plant and animal communities.

"Fungi are extremely well suited to the Australia environment. Ninety percent of all plants have symbiotic fungi on their roots, which greatly assists them in obtaining nutrients from Australia's poor soils.

"Although largely untapped, the Australian native fungi are a vast source of food, which Indigenous Australians have eaten and used as medicines over many thousands of years.

"Many Australian fungi are also important animal food sources. For example, the most critically endangered marsupial in Australia, the threatened Gilbert's Potoroo in south-west Western Australia, relies heavily on symbiotic fungi such as the truffle-like fungus Gummivena potorooi.

"And there is so much more to learn about fungi. In Australia alone, we could have up to 250,000 fungal species, but currently there are names for only about 10 percent of that number.

"The educational materials on fungi are part of an overall exhibition - 'The Plant Underworld', which is showcasing cryptogams. Cryptogams are organisms that belong to an ancient group of life forms, which existed almost 100 million years before the dinosaurs.

"Some of the lichens, mosses, liverworts and hornworts are quite extraordinary. Unlike many flowering plants, they are able to survive drought conditions for many years.

"Cryptogams have evolved with changes in environmental conditions and now spread to fill many of the habitats that are off limits to the flowering plants. For example the flora of the Antarctic is made of cryptogams, which are living at the limit of survival and are indicators of global environmental change," Dr Kemp said.

With almost $19,000 from the Commonwealth Government, two scientific texts on mosses were also launched, which will provide invaluable technical resources. The first publication, the Key to the Genera of Australian Mosses by William Buck, Dale Vitt and William Malcolm is an illustrated identification guide to the 291 genera of mosses of Australia and its island territories. The second publication, The Mosses of Norfolk Island, was written by the late Heinar Streimann of the Australian National Herbarium.

"The Government recognises the need to improve our knowledge of cryptogams and their ecological roles. The exhibition, poster, web-site and two scientific texts will help improve both scientific understanding and public appreciation of these poorly known organisms," Dr Kemp said.

The exhibition 'The Plant Underworld' will be on show in the Visitor Centre of the Australian National Botanic Gardens until May 2003. For more information phone the Visitor Centre on 02 6250 9540.

The poster 'Fungi and their Kingdoms', which looks at the three Kingdoms of fungi and how they are differentiated is available from the Community Information Unit of Environment Australia by telephoning 1800 803 772. Both publications from the Australian Biological Resources Study are available by telephoning (02) 6850 9558.

Media Contact:
Catherine Job Dr Kemp's Office (02) 6277 7640 or 0408 648 400
Dale Starr Environment Australia (02) 6274 2305 or 0417 047 990

Commonwealth of Australia