Fungal diversity in sacred groves versus managed forests in Epirus, NW Greece

A recent publication shows that protecting sacred groves will promote and assure the conservation of fungi. In addition, fungi play an important role in the health and stability of Mediterranean ecosystems.

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Campylomyces heimii (Malencon) Nakasone a rare fungus in Greece. It was found on dead branches of Quercus frainetto during the research.
Campylomyces heimii (Malencon) Nakasone a rare fungus in Greece. It was found on dead branches of Quercus frainetto during the research. Photo: Stephanos Diamantis

Sacred groves are associated with small mountain villages, outlying churches, icon stands or abandoned monasteries, and can be found throughout the region of Epirus in NW Greece. Sacred groves are protected by religious observance or taboos and as a result disturbance is minimal, which leads to a composition with many old-growth trees and also large amounts of dead wood. Such old-growth forests are rare in Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean basin, because of a long history of human exploitation.

On the other hand, it is recognised that fungi are key biological components of forest ecosystems. Unfortunately, they remain a relatively understudied and under-protected kingdom. Fungal diversity on its own in sacred groves has seldom been investigated. To compound this neglect, fungi, “The orphans of Rio”, have been excluded from all protection schemes, including the NATURΑ 2000 areas in EU which is considered as one of the most successful networks worldwide, ignoring in this way an entire kingdom of organisms crucial to nature.

In this study, the authors examined and compared fungal diversity in eight sacred groves and compared them with nearby managed forests that were similar in topography and vegetation. The 208 fungal taxa recorded in total were classified as ectomycorrhizal (ECM), saprotrophic and xylotrophic. Sacred groves were found to hold greater species richness and have more saprotrophic and xylotrophic fungi because of the old-growth trees they hold. The group of ECM fungi showed a great diversity in both sacred groves and managed coppice forests but their yield was substantially higher in the managed forests.

Moreover, in broadleaved coppice forests fungal diversity still appears to be satisfactorily high. As fungi have not been considered for conservation in Greece so far, these results are important for stimulating further research of a similar kind, and also in emphasising the need for conservation measures. Protecting old-growth areas such as sacred groves will promote and assure the conservation of fungi, especially xylotrophic and saprotrophic. On the other hand, the high species richness of ECM species encountered in managed forests underlines the important role this group of fungi plays in the health and stability of the Mediterranean ecosystems that have been under exploitation for centuries.

Full reference:

Diamandis S, Topalidou E, Avtzis D, Stara K, Tsiakiris R, Halley JM. 2021. Fungal diversity in sacred groves vs. managed forests in Epirus, NW Greece. Journal of Microbiology & Experimentation 9(5):142-154. DOI: 10.15406/jmen.2021.09.00335