Although often inconspicuous, fungi occur throughout the Pilanesberg National Park and play very important roles in the ecology of the park. The familiar mushroom, often seen in the summer months, is in fact a fruiting body and carries the reproductive structures of ascomycetes and basidiomycetes fungi.
Many of the fungi found in the Pilanesberg National Park are major decomposers of dead plant and animal matter. Fungi are used by termites to convert cellulose (plant matter) to digestible sugars and proteins.
Most vascular plants benefit from a symbiosis between their roots and fungi -- via the mycelium. It is through the mycelium that a fungus absorbs nutrients from its environment.
Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus consisting of a mass of branching threadlike hyphae that exists below the ground or within another substrate -- for example: the rotting trunk of a tree!
Mycelium is also a vital component of the Pilanesberg National Park's ecosystems, in that it helps increase the efficiency of water and nutrient absorption of many plants and also is vital to the decomposition and breaking-up of plant material to form the organic part of soil and to release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.
Some fungi are predators of nematodes (small worms!), which they capture using an array of devices such as constricting rings or adhesive nets.
Other types of fungi are parasites on living plants and animals. They are responsible for numerous diseases. Many of the plants in the Pilanesberg National Park will be infected by some or other fungi -- for example: rust on the leaves of Rhus dentata.
Other fungi are partners in symbiotic relationships with other organisms. For example, lichens are formed by a symbiotic relationship between algae or cyanobacteria and fungi. Lichens usually grow on substrates where other plants cannot survive -- on bare rocks, fallen logs or tree branches.
Lichens are common throughout the Pilanesberg National Park -- look at any rocky outcrop and you will see many colourful forms. They also have an ecological role. With the help of powerful enzymes lichens are able to break down rock material. Lichens are thus important to any ecosystem, especially nutrient poor ecosystems, because they help to release the otherwise unavailable nutrients from rocks.
Believe it or not, the Pilanesberg National Park would be a very different place without fungi!
Common mushroom species of the Pilanesberg National Park:
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