Ushering in the next generation and growth cycle, spores of a deer mushroom (Pluteus cervinus) on Mount Olympus shake free and dance in the air beneath its gills. PHOTOGRAPH BY AGORASTOS PAPATSANIS

This article was originally published by National Geographic, text by Nick Martin and illustrations by Katy Wiedemann


Flora. Fauna. Funga. The case for fungi to be considered their own kingdom within the natural world was simple: Without them, much of life as we know it on this planet—starting with the ability of plants to live outside of water—would not exist.

It’s been at least 400 million years since mycorrhizal fungi helped plants colonize the Earth’s land, thanks to a pretty basic trade-off: Fungi tend to form a symbiotic relationship with different plants and animals, and they move by eating and expanding outward. For most plants today, that means fungi live within their root systems, metabolizing sugar from photosynthesis while helping them access water and critical nutrients.


An Extinct Giant
Prototaxites, an extinct fungus, formed large trunklike structures up to three feet wide and 26 feet long, making it by far the largest land-dwelling organism of its time, some 400 million years ago.


But that’s only the beginning of what these tiny marvels can do. From yeast to mold to mushroom, the variety among fungi isn’t just remarkable but also far wider than the diversity that exists among plants and vertebrates. There are around five million species of fungi, yet roughly 90 percent remain undocumented. Fungi are in our air, in our water, and even on our skin and within our bodies. Still, researchers have only scratched the surface of why they’re so critical to keeping ecosystems in balance.


Fermenting Fungi
Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or common yeast, is used for fermentation, from leavening bread to making beer and wine.


“Fungi can show you that life begins even when another one ends,” says mycologist Giuliana Furci, a Harvard University associate and National Geographic Explorer, about their crucial role in our planetary life cycle. As founder of the Fungi Foundation, she has spent the past 14 years leading the campaign for their inclusion in conservation policy.


A Lethal Mushroom
Amanita phalloides, one of the deadliest known mushrooms, is often fatal if ingested. This has earned it a nickname: the death cap.


For Furci, the aha moment arrived when, during a research trip as a university student in Chile, she came across an arresting orange mushroom and, upon further research, realized that not only were there no mushroom field guides for the country but there were no mycology programs at all. She vowed to change that and has since been documenting Chile’s native fungi.

(The dreamlike fungi that thrive in nature’s damp corners)


Now dozens of mycologists are amplifying the call for “funga”—a new term for the regional fungi population—to be provided the same level of research funding and biodiversity conservation as flora and fauna. Simultaneously, fungi figureheads like Paul Stamets, who appeared in the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi, and Merlin Sheldrake, author of the best-selling 2020 book Entangled Life, have found their own ways to share the benefits and wonder of this hidden world.

An Invaluable Fungus
Penicillium is a genus of mold that decomposes organic matter, can be used to fight bacterial infections, and even gives flavor to soft cheeses.


Not surprisingly, more international policy gatekeepers—such as Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources, the National Biobank of Thailand, and Italy’s Institute for Environmental Protection and Research—and the International Union for Conservation of Nature are publicly pushing for funga’s inclusion in their own environmental conservation work. So too is the National Geographic Society, which recently added funga to its definition of “wildlife” to invite grant applications in this area and open up more opportunities for future Explorers.

Dead Man’s Fingers
Xylaria polymorpha, or dead man’s fingers, is a soft rot fungus that digests dead wood and gets its name from its black, finger-like fruiting bodies.


The world is a bigger petri dish than almost anyone ever imagined—from invasive species that can signal how we’ll navigate a warming and changing world, to the complex “mycobiome” of bodily based fungi that offer new insight into how deadly diseases like cancer may spread (and some hints about treatment), to harnessing mycelium as a more eco-friendly fashion material.

The future is funga. Now is the time to understand what it holds.


(Learn more about funga in a new National Geographic Society documentary.)