Fungi are the least studied biological Kingdom, with only 1-2% of the estimated 5–10 million species being described, and there are groups for which even basic molecular phylogenetic work is lacking. The incorporation of DNA-based methods has exposed the restrictions of morphological assessments and casts doubt upon some earlier taxonomic assignments. Generally, however, taxonomic implications of molecular data should only be put in place after careful examination of specimens and after a thorough search for morphological and/or ecological evidence and confirmation. At a moment of global losses of biodiversity, and with a vast majority of fungal species being undescribed, it is important not only to take advantage of state-of-the-art technologies, but to push forward collecting efforts. The ectomycorrhizal (ECM) plant-fungal mutualism is globally widespread, but knowledge of the diversity of the fungi involved in this keystone symbiosis is incomplete, especially in tropical areas. ECM fungi enhance host plant nutrient uptake, provide protection against root diseases, and alleviate effects of abiotic stresses. The aim of this project is to quantitatively investigate how environmental factors influence the genus-level diversity of ECM fungal communities. Fruiting bodies of ECM formers will be collected (e.g., Amanita, Cortinarius, Lactarius, Russula, Suillus) in designated 20m x 20m plots and associations with habitat data will be assessed.
The forests of Central America are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America – which have evolved separately. Many of these ecosystems have been badly degraded but there is a proposal to join currently discontinuous areas of forest into a continuous Mesoamerican forest corridor running from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (where there are other Opwall teams) to Panama. Part of this corridor will encompass the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park in Honduras – a site rich in endemics and endangered species yet threatened by unchecked illegal deforestation. The Opwall survey teams have been working in Cusuco since 2003 and the data produced has resulted in the Park being listed as one of the top 50 most irreplaceable protected areas in the world (based on a review of 173,000 sites worldwide). As well as underlining the biological value of Cusuco, the datasets collected by the Opwall teams are also being used to make an application for funding through Natural Forest Standard (NFS). This will allow carbon credits from the Park to be issued, which can then be sold to multinational companies wishing to offset their carbon emissions and at the same time help protect biodiversity. Funding obtained in this way will then be used to manage and protect the park and the many unique species it supports.
In the cloud forest of Cusuco National Park it can get warm in open areas (temperatures up to 20 degrees Celsius) but much cooler in the shade of the forest. Overnight the temperature can drop below 10 degrees Celsius at higher altitudes. It rarely rains in the morning but it regularly rains late in the afternoon and overnight.
Fitness level required
Medium – High. You will need to hike from camp to camp for up to 5 hours over steep terrain with your backpack.
Facilities in Cusuco are very basic (tents, hammocks, river showers, basic trench toilets). There is no cell phone signal in Cusuco National Park and very limited satellite internet available through a communal laptop at Base Camp.