Looy and her colleagues Henk Visscher of the Laboratory of Palaeobotany and Palynology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and Mark Sephton of the Impacts and Astromaterials Research Centre at Imperial College, London caution that today's changing climate could also lead to increased activity of pathogenic soil microbes that could accelerate the death of trees already stressed by higher temperatures and drought.
"Pathogenic fungi are important elements of all forest ecosystems," said Visscher. "When an entire forest becomes weakened by environmental stress factors, onslaught of damaging fungal diseases can result in large-scale tissue death and tree mortality."
The researchers dispute the conclusion of other researchers who claim that the thread-like microfossils are the remains of algae. Furthermore, while the researchers previously thought that Reduviasporonites were fungi that took advantage of dying forests, they now believe the fungi actively helped destroy the forests.
"Previously, mass occurrences of Reduviasporonites had been ascribed to wood-rotting fungi living off an excessive abundance of dead wood," said Looy, a paleobotanist who focuses on pollen and spores as keys to understanding past plant communities. "However, the notion that the microfossils represent Rhizoctonia-like resting structures suggest a much more active role for fungi in the ecological crisis:"
The researchers' conclusion comes largely from the fact that they have found living fungi in the genus Rhizoctonia that have a dormant or resting stage during their life cycles in which they look nearly identical to Reduviasporonites.
"One of our problems was that the microfossils didn't resemble the hyphae of known fungi," Looy said. "But a few years
|Contact: Robert Sanders|
University of California - Berkeley