SPUN Field Update: Palmyra Atoll, Lesotho + More

2023 has already been busy for SPUN. The team rang in the new year sampling soils together with Dr. Peter Chatanga, Dr. Sebolelo Molete, and Dr. Liteboho Maduna in the mountains of Lesotho, we announced the winners of the Underground Explorers grants, and we are working on exciting new tools that will help us identify the underground ecosystems most under threat.

The SPUN Team
March 1, 2023
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Field notes

Underground Explorers Program

Together with a panel of SPUN associates, we awarded 11 Underground Explorer grants. The awards allow researchers from across Africa, Asia, Central & South America, Europe, and Oceania to embark on expeditions to sample and sequence mycorrhizal communities. These areas are important because they are extremely under-sampled ecological systems and/or geographic regions. We hope to share updates from our Underground Explorers in real time and they investigate below-ground ecosystems. Read more about the winners and their projects here.


SPUN is Hiring

We are looking for an enthusiastic, experienced Operations Manager who is passionate about climate and the environment to join our team. The full job description and application can be found on our careers page.

Palmyra Expedition

In partnership with The Nature Conservancy Climate Adaptation Lab, SPUN is mapping the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi across Palmyra Atoll, 1,000 miles south of Hawai’i. This atoll, Earth’s most remote set of islands, is home to a million seabirds, untouched coral reefs, and a fish population that is 44% sharks.

Working with Dr. Stuart West, Dr. Charlie Cornwallis, Dr. Nicole Hyson, Dr. Kabir Peay, Caroline Daws, and Dr. Andressa Monteiro Venturini, SPUN hopes to understand the diversity of mycorrhizal fungi associated with native Pisonia Grandis trees and invasive palms. During the course of the expedition, SPUN scientists collected samples from across 27 islands. These have been sent off for DNA sequencing so that the fungal players can be identified.

Read more about Palmyra Atoll here.

Lesotho Expedition

In January, SPUN returned from a trip to sample mycorrhizal fungi in Lesotho, the only country in the world completely above 1,000 meters elevation. SPUN scientists worked with local collaborators, including ecologist Dr. Peter Chatanga, soil scientist Dr. Sebolelo Molete, and medical microbiologist Dr. Liteboho Maduna, to sample soils in the country’s high elevation wetlands.

Documenting the unique underground life of Lesotho is becoming increasingly urgent. It is estimated that the country loses close to 40 million tons of soil every year. Loss of soil in Lesotho has the potential to induce a chain reaction: because there are no tree roots to hold the soil in place, erosion drives the formation of dongas – extreme eroded gullies that pockmark the land, reaching depths of over 30 feet. Controlling the expansion of dongas requires protecting soil biodiversity, like fungi, that form scaffolds to keep soil in place.

Even at the highest altitudes, land degradation is threatening key wetlands of Lesotho – recent figures suggest that eroded soils were found in over 30% of surveyed wetlands. This has serious consequences beyond Lesotho. Research by Dr. Peter Chatanga from the National University of Lesotho suggests that wetlands are among the planet's most space efficient carbon sinks. But, when these same wetlands are degraded they become a global source of carbon.

These carbon-rich wetlands are also responsible for providing clean water to Southern Africa via the 800-mile long Senqu river — one of Africa's longest water ways. With increasingly less snow on the mountains and more run-off, soil erosion is predicted to escalate. This will deplete the soil of nutrients, reduce food production capacity, and clog the waterways.

SPUN Youth x Fridays for Future Light March

On January 27, SPUN Youth partnered with Fridays for Future Amsterdam to lead a light march through the streets of Amsterdam. Over 150 people attended to raise awareness for underground fungi. For information about future events and fun, accessible lessons about fungi, follow SPUN Youth on Instagram and TikTok at @spun.youth.

SPUN in the news

France24 - Watch: Why fungi might actually be magic when it comes to climate change

Um So Planeta - Fungos mágicos: como esses seres ajudam a moldar a vida no planeta e podem influenciar nossa rotina

The Guardian - The burning question about fungi: what happens to them in extreme heat?

Reuters - Guest view: Protecting Earth’s underground heroes

The Sunday Times - Spore-inspiring: how a gigantic fungal network orchestrates a circle of life

On our radar


Papers we’re reading

Nature Ecology & EvolutionAvoid the reproduction of coloniality in decolonial studies in ecology" - As a pledge to join efforts toward decolonizing scientific disciplines (particularly ecology), the article proposes to recognize decolonial theories developed in the Global South, along with historical and socioeconomic analysis of the ways in which knowledge is produced and validated in ecology.

Global Change BiologyCarbon for soils, not soils for carbon”- A review that describes how overly general guidelines to promote soil organic carbon sequestration in agriculture may create conflicts between climate change mitigation and food production goals. The authors argue instead for a ‘soil-smart approach’ that incorporates the context dependency in soil C-crop yield relationships, which may not always align with climate mitigation strategies.

Nature Ecology & EvolutionPositive citation bias and overinterpreted results lead to misinformation on common mycorrhizal networks in forests” - A review finds that over-interpretation of results and a bias towards citing positive results may be driving misinterpretation of common mycorrhizal networks and their role in forests.

Restoration EcologyThe gap between mycorrhizal science and application: existence, origins, and relevance during the United Nation's Decade on Ecosystem Restoration” - A review of 130 management plans for natural areas in the United States finds that nearly one half (46%) viewed fungi solely as pathogens or ignored them altogether, and only 8% of plans mentioned mycorrhizal fungi. To help remedy this, the authors provide action items to safeguard native mycorrhizal fungal communities and accelerate restoration and regeneration.

Upcoming conferences

Global Soil Biodiversity Conference | 13-15 March, 2023, Dublin, Ireland

South American Mycorrhizal Research Network | 24 August - 2 September, 2023, Leticia, Amazonas, Colombia

Field work

Are you interested in participating in fungal research? Many researchers are currently running projects in diverse fields of environmental mycology. Check them out on our Associates Page.

If you’re a mycorrhizal researcher who is interested in becoming a SPUN Associate you can fill out this form to apply.

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