Book Review

Protocols for an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory
of Fungi in a Costa Rican Conservation Area

Edited by Amy Y. Rossman, Rodham E. Tulloss, Thomas E. O’Dell, and R. Greg Thorn
Parkway Publishers, Inc., 1998.
ISBN 1-887905-05-7

This book resulted from a June 1995 workshop which took place at the Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica. At the workshop, 25 (predominantly systematic) mycologists from Costa Rica (8), the US (10), and six other countries met to design a project to document all of the fungi in the ACG. The book is advertised as “...a how-to manual for conducting an all taxa biodiversity inventory (ATBI) of fungi with recommended procedures for sampling and isolating all groups of fungi. In addition, it lists literature useful for identification of fungal species and outlines the procedures for developing fungal culture collections and specimen herbaria.” In a followup summary of the meeting Paul Cannon (1995) further stated that “It (the ATBI) does not simply involve making a list of species found, but is rather an assessment of the number and value of organisms in the sample site. It is carried out for much the same reasons that shops undergo stock-taking, so that owners of the sample site can make informed decisions on its management. The value of the site can then be maintained and enhanced through sustainable development.” All-in-all some pretty lofty goals.


The book opens with a foreword by Dan Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, resident ecologists at the ACG and hosts for the workshop, which was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. The main text includes: Chapter 1—Introduction and Overview, 2—Conventions and Document Road Map, 3—Goals and Management of the Fungus ATBI of the ACG, 4— Sampling Protocols: An Overview, 5—Establishment of Transects and Plots, 6 —Common Procedures for Collecting and Handling Samples, 7—Common Protocols for Isolation and Culturing Fungi and Managing a Culture Collection, 8— Protocols for Fungi Associated with Living Plants and Fungicolous Fungi, 9— Protocols for Fungi Associated with Dead or Recently Cut Wood and Woody Substrates, 10—Protocols for Fungi Associated with Terrestrial, Soil, Rock, and Aquatic Substrates, 11—Protocols for Fungi Associated with Animals and Animal Products, 12—Staff Resources of the Fungus ATBI: Tasks, Training, and Capacity Building, 13—Bibliographic and Computer Resources for the Fungus ATBI, 14—Products, and 15—Resource Needs. A list of references cited, three appendixes—on references for isolation and identification of fungi, Latin American and Spanish participation in the fungus ATBI, and protocols for molecular approaches—and an index complete the book.

The immensity of the task of doing an ATBI raises two major questions—first, ‘can it be done?’, and second, ‘should it be done?’ The workshop was convened in response to a US National Science Foundation officer’s query about whether it would be possible to do a full biodiversity inventory of a large complex area and whether the scientific community was prepared to take on such a project. Thus, attention was focused on feasibility and cost. The desirability of such an endeavor apparently was taken for granted.

So, can an ATBI of fungi be done and, if so, does this book provide sufficient guidance to accomplish it? Given the short time available to develop the protocols, the results are impressive; however, given the amount of planning that would be required to actually implement the ATBI, this book by itself would not suffice. Although it provides a good outline of tasks, these would have to be fleshed out before work could actually be conducted. For instance, the protocols described for mycorrhiza leave significant gaps—the identification of ectomycorrhizal fungi on root tips is acknowledged to require molecular methods, yet such methods are not included here. Nor is the need for a molecular library derived from independently identified species mentioned. Currently available libraries are nowhere near sufficient for a project such as this. The protocols for arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are based entirely on spore collections, either from field samples or from field/greenhouse baiting. Our knowledge of the degree to which spore collections accurately reflect the full complement of species present is limited and it is reasonable to suspect that at least a few taxa would slip by in a spores-only study. Molecular methods are required here as well. On a more general note, the reliance on plots and transects for sampling, while well suited to a study intended to yield a representative picture of the mycoflora, is not so well suited to a project whose intent is to find every fungus that inhabits the ACG. The great majority of species are likely to be rare and patchily distributed, so sampling directed at specific spatially and/or temporally rare habitats will be necessary to find these fungi.

Throughout the book, there is acknowledgment that the project will require unprecedented cooperation from many mycologists (primarily specialized systematists) throughout the world, most of whom would be working on a consulting basis. The workshop group estimated that perhaps 50,000 species of fungi occur in the ACG, so identification will be a huge task indeed. In the 250-300 years that mycologists have been describing fungi, a total of roughly 70,000 species has accumulated. If 50% of the ACG fungi are undescribed as seems likely, then we are looking at over 1/3 as many fungi having to be described in a 7-year study as have been in the history of mycology!

The total cost for the fungus ATBI was estimated to be $31,552,650 (including $20,000,000 for identifications by specialists); yet even this sobering amount might not be enough. For instance, it allows for only a small molecular study and does not include preparation of the many products, such as field guides and educational CDs, envisioned by the work group. It is not clear from where such a level of funding would come in this time of shrinking budgets and continued under-appreciation of the importance of fungi. To underscore this concern, it is notable that the ACG ATBI has been discontinued for political and economic reasons.

There also are difficulties with the notion of assigning a value to each fungus. First, Cannon (1995) acknowledges that “For the fungi, probably less than 5% of species have received even rudimentary description...We have no idea of the economic potential of 99% of all fungal species!”

Second, under the best of circumstances, the individual-species-value approach implicit in Cannon’s shopkeeper analogy is fraught with difficulties if preservation, or even conservation, is the goal. For instance, the idea that discovery of anthropocentric value in a species will slow or prevent its decimation is countered by economic arguments that favor maximizing return from a resource, even if doing so leads to its extinction. One simply takes the profits from that resource and invests them in another venture (Clark 1973). For a fuller treatment of this so-called conservation dilemma, see the discussions by David Ehrenfeld (1976, 1978).

And third, assigning values to individual species overlooks another very important source of value, as stated clearly by the Ecological Society of America:

“Human societies derive many essential goods from natural ecosystems, ¼ (however) natural ecosystems also perform essential life-support services without which human civilizations would cease to thrive. These include the purification of air and water, detoxification and decomposition of wastes, regulation of climate, regeneration of soil fertility, and production and maintenance of biodiversity, from which key ingredients of our agricultural, pharmaceutical, and industrial enterprises are derived. ¼ Such processes are worth many trillions of dollars annually (for instance, see Costanza et al. 1997). Yet because most of these benefits are not traded in economic markets, they carry no price tags that could alert society to changes in their supply or deterioration of underlying ecological systems that generate them. Because threats to these systems are increasing, there is a critical need for identification and monitoring of ecosystem services both locally and globally, and for the incorporation of their value into decision-making processes.”

Natural ecosystems are far more valuable than the mere sum of their parts and generating a better understanding of the role of fungi in these systems would be a major step forward. However, these ecosystems are disappearing or being seriously degraded far faster than we can hope to fully inventory them. What’s the sense of a shopkeeper’s inventory if the items are being stolen as fast as they can be counted? If we hope to understand these systems we must identify the more important species (this is where the ATBI-type protocols would be needed) and then determine how they function within the context of the system and in relation to human activities. This knowledge then could be used to bolster arguments for preserving intact natural systems, not just selected pieces of them. Generating full species lists of areas would be nice, but hardly seems feasible in today’s social and political climate.

So, should you buy this book, whether or not you are considering a fungus ATBI? This decision should be guided by the book’s overall usefulness for carrying out surveys of fungi, not by a philosophical debate over whether all-species inventories are the best use of our limited resources. For an overview of how to approach a fungal survey of an area and guide to a large selection of the more relevant literature for this task it would serve well. However, plan on having to augment the information in the book with additional resources and having to flesh out the protocols for use in your own studies.


— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile, 41:1, 2000