New Aussie species discovered hidden in a box

Scientists believe tens of thousands more species can be found if we invest $1 billion.

Amazing pictures have been released showing a newly discovered fungus that had been hidden in plain sight in an Australian collection.

Samples of similar-looking fungus were originally collected by mycologist Tom May deep inside a forest and then placed inside a box. “I had seen them and thought, that looks funny, I wonder what it is,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

He then added his samples to the Royal Botanic Gardens herbarium collection in Victoria which is home to 1.5 million dried plant, algae and fungi specimens. Within this expansive collection were a number of identical-looking fungi samples all collected around Victoria and Tasmania.

Pseudobaeospora taluna fungus lying on the forest floor.
The newly discovered Pseudobaeospora taluna fungus. Source: Noah Siegel

Wanting to know what type of species they were, Mr May tasked research student Samuel Craig with analysing them. But after slicing them up and testing the DNA, they were surprised to find something expected.

They were all in a box, we thought they were all the same thing. Then we started to scratch the surface.Tom May

Fungus discovery facts:

  • The new species is called Pseudobaeospora taluna.

  • Specimens are between 1cm and 2cm high.

  • The greyish-brown samples look the same to the naked eye.

More than one fungi species discovered

The new fungus they analysed was found to be from a rarely encountered family called Pseudobaeospora, which has not been described in Australia before. Surprisingly DNA analysis combined with microscopy revealed the samples were not from just one type of fungus, but multiple species.

A close-up slide showing Pseudobaeospora taluna.
It was only after the fungus samples were examined under a microscope that it became clear they were multiple species. Source: Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

“It was kind of like opening up a Russian doll. We drew one species into the light, and found four more species indicated by the DNA,” he said. “Now we need to work out what the subtle differences are, because in the field they look the same. We’ve got a lot of detective work to do.”

Thousands more species will be discovered

Mr May believes there are likely many thousands of fungi species that are yet to be named — it’s the same situation with insects and spiders.

To name and describe every undescribed species in Australia would likely cost around $1 billion dollars over 25 to 30 years, according to a “back of the envelope” independent analysis. But that investment would likely recover an eight to 25 times return on investment.

Pressure is on ecologists to describe new species before they are pushed to extinction by factors like climate change and development. “There are tens of thousands of species that need to be described,” Mr May said.

When new discoveries are made they have the potential to benefit both humankind and the wider environment. "Right across the fungal kingdom, there are just so many examples of antibiotics, antivirals, anti cancer compounds, lots of different biologically active compounds," he said.

The discovery has been published in the Australian Journal of Taxonomy, a new online database of species discoveries.

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